The Woolford lab celebrates 40 years of research,
discovery, mentorship and fond memories

During the first weekend of June 2019, the halls of Mellon Institute were flooded with visitors, yet they all had a familiarity with the building and its quizzical room numbering methodology and labyrinthine corridors. 

For some of these visitors, being hunched over a lab bench on the 6th floor felt like yesterday, and for others, it probably felt a little more distant. 

40 years — that was the magic number this weekend. It had been 40 years since John Woolford, professor of biological sciences, joined the department and opened his laboratory. Since 1979, the lab has been at the forefront of ribosomal research, and judging by all of the kind words being thrown in the direction of Woolford during the reunion, each and every year in the lab’s last 40 was memorable.

The reunion celebration was initially conceived by Woolford’s first graduate student, Robert Last (Ph.D. ’86). Last, now the Barnett Rosenberg Professor in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department at Michigan State University, approached Woolford with the idea of inviting back all the graduate students that have been part of the lab since its inception. 

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Last said. “One of great things about being an academic and one of the awful things about being an academic is that people come and go.”

“Having everyone together from all the years the lab has been running shows how you can ride the waves that come through the university,” Last continued. “You help make sure the students on the waves don’t crash and you help them get better and learn more and then they go on to influence even more people.”

Not knowing how many people would have the opportunity to travel to Pittsburgh for the event, Woolford was hesitant at first. After reaching out to lab alumni, though, they all jumped at the chance. Twenty-seven out of 30 former graduate students were able to attend the reunion, traveling from all over the United States, as well as China, Taiwan and Germany. Including family and other faculty members from CMU and the University of Pittsburgh, over 60 people were in attendance for an evening reception and research talks from alumni throughout the weekend.

“I think having everyone here made John finally realize how many people he has actually touched,” said Jelena Micic, research technician in the Woolford lab since 1998. “It’s one thing to publish papers and see people come and go over the years, but to have so many people say that you have helped them become the person they are now — I could tell how appreciative John was for this event.”