Roy Curtiss III and Josephine Clark-Curtiss talk about life after Wash U

Roy Curtiss III began crossing tomatoes at age 10, then chickens at age 12, and eventually bacterial viruses at age 21. He switched to the study of genetics of bacterial pathogens, starting in Alabama and continuing at Wash U. Roy studied leprosy and salmonella, learning the biochemical and genetic basis, why they were successful, and how he could use this info to develop better vaccines and diagnostics. Possessing a strong ethical streak, he wanted to use what he learned to benefit society. He entered the world of disease prevention and vaccine development, and started a company in 1992 called Megan Health which developed salmonella vaccines for poultry and swine.

Roy wrote a few proposals for the Grand Challenge for Global Health, one of which won. The proposal was to develop a vaccine for infant pneumonia. He also worked with the vaccine center at St. Louis University and on a tuberculosis vaccine with his partner Josephine Clark-Curtiss. He is still working on parasitic diseases and pneumonia, but also works with poultry, zebra fish and commercial fish to reduce the need for antibiotics. He worked on antibiotic resistance issues early on at Cornell and as a grad student in Chicago. He also worked on R Factor plasmids in Japan that had genes for antibiotic resistance. He was part of early debates on the subject that is now at the forefront of scientific research.

Roy is always an activist alongside being a scientist. He ideally wants to reduce the need for antibiotics in the first place. He is currently on his 51st patent! The first twenty or so patents are from Wash U. He brought new technology to his labs early on in his career too, including incubators and other devices.

Roy Curtiss and Josephine Clark-Curtiss were faculty members at Wash U researching pathogens and developing vaccines from 1983-2005. Roy was Biology Chair for 10 of those years (1983-1993). In 2005, they were approached by pre-eminent plant scientist Charles Arntzen from Arizona State University (ASU). ASU was in the process of setting up a new state of the art Biodesign Institute pulling faculty from all different disciplines. Roy was intrigued by the Institute which had two new buildings and center directors representing different areas of science but focused on thinking in translational activities, such as the impact of their combined research on evolutionary biology, society, health care, and even remote sensing and outer space. His own divergent background made him feel right at home in that environment. Roy particularly loved to argue with Director George Poste, previously head of Research and Design for SmithKline pharmaceutical company. Roy joined as an ecology and evolution professor, while Josie was elected as head of cell and molecular biology.

Roy came to ASU with six grants alone at a time when the institution didn’t have many research grants. ASU went from a party school to a major research institute in just a few years. ASU also had the largest number of native American faculty members in the US. A few years before Roy and Josie joined ASU, Michael Crowe became president of the university. Michael was a dynamic innovative educator. Before his appointment, the university basically welcomed anyone who had a high school degree. ASU tightened up the undergrad program to attract students from out of state. They built dorms and made it mandatory to live on campus the first year of college. Before this, many undergrads were attending school, but living at home and taking up to six years to complete a bachelor’s degree.

One of the changes in the education program was initiated by Roy who thought that the terms for a postdoc at ASU were too long, with some students spending 10 or more years completing the postdoc program! It started with an email from Roy to Michael Crowe on a Friday afternoon and was resolved by Monday morning. Not too many people could get so much done over a weekend, overhaul a whole education program. It wasn’t just a matter of convincing Michael, but also other universities within the Arizona state system had to be on board with the changes. This policy change and program creation revolutionized things for postdocs.

Research labs at the Biodesign Institute were appointed through the School of Life Sciences. Michael Crowe felt students needed to interact with professors. It became customary for freshmen to have contact with faculty university-wide with smaller class sizes in their first year (vs. the usual large early undergrad courses leading up to smaller more focused ones later).

Josie talked about another faculty member, who decided that incoming freshmen interested in Life Sciences needed a course to transition from high school to college, including learning skills like time management. As part of the course, Faculty members came in and talked about how they became interested in science, broadening students’ insights on what one can do in the field.

Roy’s teaching in the microbiology program at ASU covered different topics, with interesting problems to solve. It wasn’t all about memorizing facts and passing exams, but also retention of the information and problem solving skills across different disciplines. He appealed to a diversity of students and interests, working together to cover lots of different areas. He and Josie brought this dynamic both to Wash U and ASU, developing curricular integration of subjects and a research-based approach for undergrads.

The move from ASU to University of Florida (UF) was not planned. Roy and Josie never left an institution due to unhappiness but rather due to new and enticing opportunities. Roy gave a seminar at UF and was soon after approached by the university about what it would take to move them to FL. This rare opportunity perfectly combined their research across different disciplines on one campus, including every health care discipline, agriculture, engineering, arts and sciences. This type of cross-disciplinary research on infectious disease was done collaboratively in the past, but now all of it would be happening at one location. Not to mention the natural biodiversity of the area was appealing, making it a perfect fit. Roy is currently working on brucella abortis in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Josie went to the Emerging Pathogens Institute, but their research crosses over. In addition to his work on brucella abortis, Roy also works with zebra fish and poultry and started another company in Florida developing vaccines, some of which have patents that still directly benefit Wash U’s biology department. For more information on the research of Roy and Josie, see their faculty profiles at UF: https://www.vetmed.ufl.edu/about-the-college/faculty-directory/roy-curtiss-iii/; https://id.medicine.ufl.edu/sample-page/faculty/josephine-e-clark-curtiss/.