posted August 1, 2012

Aaron Best Appointed to New Visscher Professorship in Genetics

Dr. Aaron Best of the Hope College biology faculty has been appointed the first recipient of the college’s new “Harrison C. and Mary L. Visscher Endowed Professorship in Genetics.”

The professorship was established by Dr. Harrison C. Visscher and his first wife, the late Mary Visscher.  It honors a distinguished member of the biology faculty who leads an active teaching and research program in the field of genetics and/or molecular biology and demonstrates in his or her professional and personal life a commitment to the mission of the college.  Appointments are for a 10-year term.

Best’s appointment to the professorship began on July 1.  He will be honored during a formal investiture ceremony on Thursday, Sept. 27.

Retired from a career in medicine and a Hope graduate, Harrison Visscher noted that he valued the opportunity to support the college’s role in genetic education and research.

“I have been interested in biological evolution ever since I took comparative anatomy as a Hope premed student from Prof. Oscar Thompson in 1948.  And I believe the development of new knowledge in the field of biological evolutionary genetics is one of the most exciting areas of current scientific research,” he said.  “Recent genetic advances in the field of synthetic genomics present limitless applications that can revolutionize production of energy, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and enable carbon sequestration and environmental remediation.  I want Hope College to play a part in these exciting genomic advances.”

Visscher said that he further appreciates Hope’s proven success in applying both faith and science when seeking understanding, putting the two together “in order to promote a comprehensive healthy holistic worldview” at a time when many reject one voice or the other.

“The two truths are compatible and can and do exist in harmony,” he said.  “I strongly identify with [the college’s] goal of providing students with a comprehensive liberal arts education in the context of the Christian faith.”

Harrison and Mary Visscher both graduated from Hope, in 1951 and 1952 respectively.  They met at the college, and all four of their children subsequently attended Hope as well.  In addition, so far three of their grandchildren have also graduated from Hope.

Harrison is a retired physician who spent the last 15 years of his career as director of education for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Washington, D.C.  He lives in Holland with his second wife, Bette, who is a member of the college’s Class of 1955.

Mary, who died on April 24, 2000, among other activities had taught elementary school and taught art history to visitors to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  She was a member of the college’s Board of Trustees from 1978 to 1988, and had also served as president of the Women’s League for Hope College.

Both Harrison and Mary received Distinguished Alumni Awards from the college in 1991.

Best has been a member of the Hope faculty since 2004.  He teaches microbiology, and his primary research interest is in understanding the evolution of fundamental cellular systems and how microorganisms function at a systems level.

He involves students in his research program during both the summer and school year.  One aspect of his research uses comparative genomics to investigate how a human parasite named Giardia lamblia turns its genes on and off, a process called transcription.  With Dr. Matthew DeJongh of the college’s computer science faculty he has also been involved in an initiative with Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago to develop “Model SEED,” software used internationally to transform genomic data into working models of how organisms function at a fundamental level.  With Hope biology colleague Dr. Jianhua Li he is coordinating Hope’s acquisition of a new bench-top “next generation” sequencing platform, a project recently funded through a $171,877 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Best has also been a leader in integrating student experience with original research into coursework.  With Hope biologist Dr. Joseph Stukey he implemented a year-long course sequence funded through the Phage Genomics Research Initiative of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).  The freshman-level course, which debuted at the college in the fall of 2008, involves the students in isolating and characterizing previously unknown bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria.  The course is viewed as a model as the college investigates developing more research-based courses across the natural and applied sciences through a new award Hope received from HHMI in May.

Hope had previously honored Best by naming him a Towsley Research Scholar in January 2007.  Funded through a grant to the college from the Harry A. and Margaret D. Towsley Foundation of Midland, the recognition includes support for four years for a research project.

Best is a 1996 graduate of William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., where he majored in biology.  He completed his M.S. and his doctorate in microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1999 and 2001 respectively.  He subsequently conducted post-doctoral work at the university before coming to Hope.

The Visscher professorship was initiated during the college’s “Legacies: A Vision of Hope” comprehensive campaign, which concluded in 2005.  Enhancing the college’s endowment is also a major focus of the current $175-million “A Greater Hope” campaign, which was announced in October 2011.  Components of “A Greater Hope” include $20 million in endowment to support outstanding members of the faculty in their teaching and research not only through endowed professorships but also departmental discretionary funds and faculty development funds.  Thus far, the college has a total of 21 endowed professorships for faculty and three administrative positions.