Interview with Dr. Gordon Niswender
Dr. Gordon Niswender, 1940-2017
Dr. Gordon Niswender, an international pioneer in reproduction biology and a Colorado State University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, died March 24 after a battle with metastatic bladder cancer. He was 76.
A celebration of his life is planned at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 1, at First United Methodist Church, 1005 Stover St. in Fort Collins. Find his obituary here.
The Q&A below was conducted with Niswender in May 2016, less than a year before his death.
Niswender worked from 1972 to 2010 as a researcher and administrator in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. In 1987, he was named a University Distinguished Professor, the highest academic award at CSU, for outstanding scholarship and achievement. In 2010, the year of his retirement, he received the Pioneer Award at the International Ruminant Reproduction Symposium.
He was honored for developing radioimmunoassays that, for the first time, allowed blood levels of reproduction hormones to be measured in domestic farm animals, providing a critical window on reproductive and overall health. Niswender provided the reagents for these assays to more than 600 scientists in more than 40 countries to support their research. His procedures were modified for use in human medicine.
Niswender also made major discoveries regarding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that control the functions of the ovary in domestic farm animals. He mentored dozens of scientists at the doctoral and postdoctoral levels; many went on to leadership positions in academia, industry, and federal agencies.
During a career that spanned nearly 40 years in CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Niswender served as Interim Dean, Associate Dean for Research, Director of the Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory, and Director of the Equine Sciences Program. He received numerous national and international awards from the American Society of Animal Science, the Endocrine Society, Society for the Study of Reproduction, and the UK Society for Fertility.
Thank you for joining us, Dr. Niswender. Could you start by describing what was going on when you arrived at Colorado State?
I came to CSU in 1972, and the College of Veterinary Medicine was not known for research at that time. That was one of the reasons I think that they wanted me to come. I’d been at the University of Michigan and had developed the first-ever assay methods that let people measure hormone levels in blood. Another person developed the first assay for insulin. She got the Nobel Prize for that, and then the very next ones were the ones that we developed for domestic animals while I was at the University of Michigan. But I did not want to stay at Michigan. I knew that I wanted to come to CSU.
I brought with me the assays for essentially all the reproductive hormones in domestic animals, and that’s one reason I think CSU made such progress in those areas – for the first time ever, people could measure those hormones in blood. It wasn’t long till everybody caught up, and primarily that’s because we used antibodies to bind to the hormones, and we would send antibodies to over 600 laboratories in over 40 countries. Our attitude was that nobody else should have to go through all the misery of developing those things. If we had the reagents, we should send them to people.
In the meantime, that also turned into a commercial business for the Colorado State University Research Foundation. They partnered with a company called Micromedics Diagnostics and developed a new company that sold assay kits. To my knowledge, that was one of the first big-time breakthroughs for CSURF capitalizing on some of the developments of the faculty.
Could you describe more about your breakthroughs with assays to assess hormone levels, as well as the people who were central to your research?
When I finished my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, my major professor called the University of Michigan and said, “Here’s a bright young guy, and I think he’s going to have a method to measure hormones.” He made the arrangements, and it led to my career.
I stumbled into an older man in Michigan named Jim Hudson. He was 80 percent responsible for my career because he did things with chemistry that nobody could do. Just nobody. He was just amazing. He moved out here with me when I came from Michigan, and he was just a superb. He was a technician, he ran the lab, and he was a CSURF Scientist of the Year.
So steroid hormones are little tiny things that are not antigenic, meaning you can’t make antibodies to them. So while I was at Michigan, I said, “Well, that’s the next big breakthrough – steroid hormones – and I’m going to do it.” I had read a paper in Science from people at Columbia University who made antibodies to steroids by conjugating the steroid molecule to protein, immunizing rabbits with that, and then some of the antibodies, probably a tenth of 1 percent, would recognize the steroid. So I set out to do that, and I was looking for a compound called isobutyl chlorocarbonate.
I couldn’t find it, and I finally called the president of Aldrich Chemicals. He told me to call Jim Hudson. So I called this guy, and he said, “Well, I can help you out, but I’m not going to make you isobutyl chlorocarbonate.” So he came in, and he said, “You know, young man, I think you better just hire me to do this chemistry.” And I said, “Well, really? You know, I have a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. What makes you think I can’t do it?” He said, “Well, it’s really quite simple. There’s no such thing as isobutyl chlorocarbonate. It’s isobutyl chloroformate, and you can buy it by the pound at chemistry stores.” So I hired him, and he was with me for 25 years. He would make the stuff to make the antibodies. Then we developed the first-ever assays for steroid hormones, estrogen, progestin, cortisol, those things. We had the first ones. So Jim Hudson was just an amazing chemist.
What were the opportunities you saw for the Animal Reproduction Lab and for research more broadly in the college?
I was hoping for the best. CSU had just hired a guy named George Seidel from Cornell, whom I had turned down. He loves to tell this story. I had turned him down for a post-doc at Michigan, so he took a job here and, as you know, went on to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a University Distinguished Professor, and more. George likes to give me a hard time about that. And I had a young man whose department head had written me to recommend him as a post-doctoral fellow. That young man was Terry Nett, and he and I worked together for 40 years. I was very lucky to have those kinds of colleagues. Of course, there was Bill Pickett, and he was one of the best organizers and one of the most instrumental people in getting things done that I’ve ever known. And Jim Voss – Dean Voss was also a member of the Animal Reproduction Lab early on. So that was an interesting time.
In 1982, Bob Phemister became the Dean, and he asked me to become Associate Dean for Research. I discussed with him what I thought that position would require if they wanted a research program to work. So I became the Associate Dean for Research with Bob Phemister. He then became the acting president of the university for almost two years. They needed somebody to take over as Interim Dean for the college, and they somehow decided that, although I was not a veterinarian, I was the person to do that, and I’m glad I did. I thought it was quite enlightening.
I’d asked Carol Blair to be the Associate Dean for Research during my time as Interim Dean. She and I talked a lot about what we could do to change the research environment and research attitude in this college. We convinced the department heads, with some serious discussions, that the college should focus. We decided that we had to be broad enough to do a good job at teaching – but we were not going to have a research program in every area that anybody can imagine.
With that, we decided to focus on the animal cancer program. We also decided we should focus on the Animal Reproduction Lab. They not only had a considerable amount of research money, but George Seidel had started an embryo transfer program that was generating over $2 million a year, the majority of which was being plowed right back into research facilities. Terry Nett was also here in that program. So the Animal Reproduction Laboratory, we decided, was certainly an area to focus on. Infectious diseases was just getting built up, with virology, leprosy, and tuberculosis. We also decided to develop a program in neurobiology. We made environmental health the fifth program of research and scholarly excellence. And one of the main programs in the college has always been the Professional Veterinary Medicine Program.
So we started hiring people into those programs, and our research budget went from almost nothing to at least a tenfold increase in a period of four or five years. We were doing three things. No. 1, we had started this research program of affinity groups. No. 2, we made every research dollar in the college competitive. The third thing we did was teach a grantsmanship class. A number of sociology professors said, “Why don’t you just teach prostitution?” That, of course, made the instructor, who was me, even madder, and we did it with even more vigor. Those three things are what dramatically enhanced the research program.
When I was Associate Dean for Research, we started these programs, and they’re still very, very productive. A bunch of the people we brought in became University Distinguished Professors. We made the right guesses. That’s the story about how the college developed its research program, and that’s something that I have been very proud of. I can’t overstate how much of a role Dr. Carol Blair played in this – and all the department heads at the time. And I give Dean Jim Voss credit. His attitude was, “Take it and run, and do not fail.”
What were other important programs that were established during the time?
The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education was a stroke of genius. Dean Bill Tietz and Jim Voss put it together and brought in half of our veterinary students and funding from 11 Western states. They did it to get the money to build the hospital in 1978 – all those states contributed to the teaching hospital. The WICHE Program has been a really big deal, there’s no question about it. Jim Voss was the major shepherd of that, no question, and he did an excellent job.
What was the significance of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital after it opened in 1979?
One of the things that I appreciated was how people at the hospital wanted to start doing science. People like Steve Withrow and Ed Gillette had paved the way, and it was amazing. Ed Hoover was doing great science. I was impressed with people like Wayne McIlwraith, who began to get research money to do things like injecting genetically engineered cells into the joints of horses to produce collagen to heal them.
One of the things I was proudest of was that almost all the residents and interns at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital attended my grantsmanship class, and I think we probably had about a 60 percent funding rate for the grants that those residents wrote for the National Institutes of Health. At the time, NIH had a program for physician scientists. It was supposed to include veterinarians and medical doctors, but we were the only vet school that took advantage of it.
During the time that Voss was Dean, the college grew leaps and bounds in all kinds of areas, and I think that’s because we focused on important research. It was a period when it was very clear that the biomedical sciences were an extremely important part of the college. The biomedical sciences stood out as the source of most of our research funding and much of our teaching, and I think it led to people putting a stamp on CSU – “This is what they stand for, and this is what they do.” People forget that and, boy, it’s a big part of the college. A big part.
You were here at the start of the program for University Distinguished Professors, which recognizes excellence in research and scholarship, and of course you were named a UDP. What was that like?
I’ll tell you a funny story about that. The UDP Program started while I was on the Council of Deans and was the Interim Dean for the college, with me never thinking I’d be a UDP. We spent a lot of time on what appropriate compensation should be. I argued, and argued, and argued. I only wanted one thing for them – assigned parking places 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They wouldn’t give it to me. Instead, they decided to pay additional salary each year. I said, “If you want to make them feel privileged and honored and distinguished, give them a parking place with their name on it.” I could not convince anybody that was a good idea. I still think it was a good idea. I couldn’t get ’er done, but I sure tried.
That program also been important to the university because it allowed CSU to do some things to retain people. There’s a good deal of prestige in it, and it’s a positive thing.
Research became a strength during your time at CSU, but what else stands out?
Instruction was a very important part of everything I did. I would often teach classes so that new faculty had time to get their research up and going. It was uncommon for me not to have three classes a semester. I’d have an Endocrinology class for graduate students at 7, another one at 8, and one at 9 for undergraduates. I loved it.
Describe where students from the reproduction program have gone. What has been the impact of all the training in the Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory?
I probably have eight or 10 trainees who run big companies that develop assays. George Seidel, the last time I knew, trained embryologists at the Animal Reproduction Lab who went to 27 human fertility clinics. So our trainees are not just in animal science or in veterinary medicine. We have a number of people who have very high-level administrative jobs at places like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health. Our trainees have gone a lot of places and had a lot of impact. Our attitude has always been that we were supposed to train people, teach them, and when they left they were supposed to be smarter than we were. It has worked very well. We’ve had some exceptional students who have really done a good job.