Genes and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—Alex Burgin '86

“We have to be advocates for moving science forward.”

Alex Burgin ’86

As director of biochemistry for the Biostructures Group of deCode Genetics on Vashon Island, Washington, Alex Burgin’s office and laboratory are equipped for his every research need. Yet the scientist’s most creative thinking is sparked in his garage.

“Ten years ago I bought a ’72 Norton—I’ve rebuilt it twice, and I love doing that work,” the long-time motorcycle rider explains. “Some of my best ideas in science have come when I’ve been doing something mindless, like putting my carburetor back together, and suddenly the job is finished. I hardly remember what I was doing, because I’ve been thinking about a lab experiment and have come up with a new way to approach it.

“Science is very creative—it’s putting two ideas together that most people don’t think fit—and my best ideas come from this relaxed state, something I learned from [Wabash art professor] Doug Calisch in our photography class.”

This juxtaposition of vocation and avocation and the pursuit of balance have been running themes in Burgin’s life. While grad school classmates spent every waking hour in the lab, Burgin sneaked away for printmaking and pottery classes “with the old ladies” at the local community college. Today he kayaks and spends hours with his kids in Puget Sound and stays in shape training for triathlon competitions. This spring he entered his first marathon. And, when travel schedules allow it, he visits with the three fraternity brothers he considers “the best friends in my life.”

“The most famous scientists with the huge laboratories probably don’t have much else in their lives,” Burgin says. “I’ve seen them working 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, and because I don’t choose to live that way, I probably won’t ever be in their league. On the other hand, I do think that my other interests help me to see things differently, and sometimes more clearly.”

Burgin’s liberal arts approach to life entered its formative stages not long after the small-town Indiana kid stepped into the Wabash classroom—in this case a freshman tutorial entitled “Creation vs. Evolution” taught by professor Dave Krohne.

“I was very afraid to speak out in class, and I didn’t think my ideas were worth anything,” Bergin recalls. “But Dave gave me validation. I’m very irreligious, but there were two students in that class who were very zealous about their beliefs, and we had these very feisty yet friendly discussions on the issues.

“That same year, [biology professor] Tom Cole sent me a congratulatory letter and a book over the summer—The Original Genes by Ben Lewin—for earning the top score in his bio-molecules class. That was tremendous positive reinforcement—one of those little things about Wabash, those connections with professors.

“[English professor] Tom Campbell really built up my confidence, and my determination to follow-through, when I did this study for him in socio-linguistics,” Burgin says. “I came up with the idea through discussions with Tom, and I finished the study, but I waited until the last minute to complete parts of it—I rushed them. When I turned it in, Tom said, “Great study,” but he knew exactly where I’d hurried things. He showed me where I’d come up short, and that was important, too.”
“And even though I’m irreligious, the Old Testament course I took from Hall Peebles was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken,” Burgin says. “I just learned so much, and it’s amazing to me today how often I read references in journals, newspapers, even in scientific writing that I would never have understood if I hadn’t taken that course.”

In C&T with Paul McKinney, Burgin learned that “if you’re going to say something, you’d better say it clearly and correctly and have a reason for saying it.

“That was incredibly important to me, because that’s how it is at science conferences today—you’d better stay sharp and not let your guard down, or your colleagues will pick you apart. That’s just the nature of science.”

Burgin came a long way from the shy Plymouth, Indiana kid to debating in C&T with one of the College’s sharpest minds. The opportunity to “do science” in Dave Polley’s genetics class and the summer-long aquatics biology immersion trip built skills and an intensity that powered him through grad school and into the upper reaches of the hottest field of science today. So Burgin has to pause for a moment when asked where Wabash came up short in his science education.

“The nurturing and building up done here is very important preparation for graduate school, but when you go out into the world and all the scientists are suddenly picking apart your ideas and trying to bring you down, it’s a real eye-opener,” Burgin says. “I had no understanding of the competitiveness in science. You write these grants, you spend a year poring over every little thing, and then you get picked apart for anything they can find. Because only 15 to 20 percent of grants can be funded, everyone gets picked apart. It’s a hard life!

“But I’m not sure how you can prepare students for this, except through internships,” Burgin says. He’s encouraged to hear such internships are more common among today’s Wabash science majors, and that many are required to present their findings at research conferences where they have to defend their work.

Burgin nods and says, “I learned something here at Wabash that really didn’t sink in until I had to do this work in the world: if you want to be a successful scientist, it’s fine to do the greatest experiment in the world, but if you can’t communicate that to other people, to your company, to your employees, to the market, and to your board of directors, you’re nowhere.

“I think this is a trend among all scientists—we’re spending more time reading, writing, convincing people, understanding the audience. We have to be advocates for moving science forward.”