February 7, 2021

GUEST ROOM | A Tribute to Beloved Professor, Bob Parker

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Robert “Bob” Parker, a beloved professor in the College of Human Ecology, Division of Nutritional Sciences, passed away in Nov. During his 38 years in DNS prior to his retirement in 2018, he earned tenure, full professorship and was an integral member of the DNS administration. Parker served as Director of Undergraduate Studies and Curriculum Committee Chair, where he helped shape the undergraduate program and led the development of two critical majors. He taught courses in Nutrition and Food Science and mentored countless undergraduate and graduate students, including myself. Over the five years Parker mentored me, he taught me so much more than just science; he instilled in me the love of learning that was so prominent in his own life.

Parker was not your average professor. He was old-school, favoring excellently conducted science over how much grant funding you secured or how many peer-reviewed articles you published. Parker published groundbreaking vitamin E research, showing for the first time how the body metabolizes it. If you look in any nutrition textbook under vitamin E, you’ll see his work. Much can be said about his scientific career, but the thing that made Parker truly unique was his teaching and mentoring style.

Parker was a hands-on mentor who was in the lab almost every day, helping his students or working on his own experiments. Some of my favorite memories of graduate school are working side-by-side with Parker in the lab. Whether it was watching real-time results from a never-before-studied knock-out mouse model or the mundane task of cleaning instrumentation, Parker always took extra time to allow me to try everything, with his guidance. His support gave me the confidence to try new things without apprehension. The most important lesson I learned from Parker was not to fear the unknown, but to take on new tasks with confidence in my potential. He knew the importance of trying new things, even if failure would be the ultimate outcome. When I proposed a set of experiments which ended up taking months to realize it was just a dead end, Parker was not phased by the failure. He never showed any frustration because he knew that even failed experiments taught us lessons. In the intervening years, I have realized what an important lesson this is in science and in life.

Those who knew Parker saw he was passionate about the pursuit of knowledge. His genuine sense of curiosity was contagious. So often Parker and I would sit and talk excitedly about science and new ideas. These are the types of conversations that so rarely happen anymore because of the fast-paced and demanding academic culture. Parker was filled with excitement about seeking knowledge, and that excitement filled his students and mentees. I never thought I would learn to love a micronutrient the way I grew to love vitamin E, and it was because of Parker’s genuine enthusiasm. This sense of curiosity filled every aspect of his life. He relished any opportunity to learn something new and could find amazement in even the smallest pieces of new information.

Parker infused learning and science with fun and laughter, and he had a terrific sense of humor. I remember sitting at my desk in the lab, Parker sitting at his desk across the room, and seeing a paper airplane fly by. After opening it, I saw it was a print-out of some vitamin E analysis, to which Parker dryly said “I just sent you some data.” When faced with the arbitrary decision of which batch of cell lines to choose for an experiment, since all tested as suitable, Parker decided by having us literally throw darts at a dartboard. When disposing of elephant urine that he had received to evaluate vitamin E levels, he had me take the urine of the female elephants to the women’s restroom, while he took the urine from the male elephants to the men’s restroom. Parker taught me to laugh, to enjoy every step of the way and not to take myself too seriously in an environment that can sometimes be overwhelming.

Most of all, Parker taught me to be myself and to listen to my heart. I remember many long discussions with Parker about my life and career path. At that formative time, Parker always tried to clear the noise and confusion in my head and help me decide what was truly important. He was an example of a person who didn’t always play the game in the way others thought he should. But, he was true to himself in a setting that does not always make authenticity easy.

Parker was kind, gentle and generous. He brought joy to other people’s lives. He and his wife Joy Swanson, who is also a faculty member in DNS, frequently hosted dinner parties for small groups of graduate students, usually with themes and often involving cooking competitions. He loved the New England Patriots and would often invite graduate students over to his house to watch games.

Parker’s scientific and professional legacy will live on in all those who were taught and mentored by him. We learned to do excellent research, to be confident, to believe in ourselves, to laugh at ourselves and the world around us and, most importantly, we learned to follow our hearts and make our own paths in life.

Sabrina Gardner received a Doctor of Philosophy in Molecular Nutrition from Cornell University in 2012. She is a Senior Genetic Scientist in Durham, North Carolina and is a Registered Dietitian. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.