Like many Americans, Bill and Sue Studier got their vaccinations recently.
But at the time they felt the life-saving sting of the needle in the arm, the Waverly native and his wife of 59 years did not know what the scientific world has confirmed since: that Bill Studier’s early research in a virus that infects the E. coli bacteria, called T7, ended up playing an important role in the timely development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against the coronavirus.
Unlike traditional approaches, those vaccines use injections of simple packets containing genetic material that commands human cells to generate coronavirus spike proteins.
Turns out, Studier’s work in the 1980s, and that of his team in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, had laid important groundwork for the eventual creation of the coronavirus vaccine.
Bill learned this from Nobel Prize-winning structural biologist Venki Ramakrishnan, from the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, England.
Pfizer and Moderna also confirmed to the Brookhaven lab that Bill’s T7 system was indeed involved in the development of their vaccines.
Asked about his reaction to the news that his work had set the stage for the vaccine, Bill is parsimonious.
“We got our Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine shots before we knew that T7 RNA polymerase had such a role in making mRNA vaccines and saving lives,” he told Waverly Newspapers in an email. “Knowing now, we are greatly pleased.”
The impact of Bill’s work is felt in the lives of millions who have received the vaccines, but Bill is characteristically humble in reflecting on the unforeseen but enduring outcome of his research.
But his colleagues, who are familiar with the scope of his work, credit him with the contribution.
“Scientists around the world have used Bill’s ‘T7 expression system’ to make large quantities of proteins or RNA of interest for the past four decades,” Ramakrishnan told Karen McNulty Walsh, in an April 13, 2021, article published on Brookhaven’s website. “The new mRNA COVID-19 vaccines use precisely this system.”
Bill’s story is that of a humble man from small town Iowa, whose studiousness, persistence and curiosity led him to pursue what scientists call “basic research,” a term used to indicate exploratory work rather than a targeted approach seeking to solve a specific problem.
On balance, Bill’s basic research, where his passion lies, helped expedite and provide a solution for a global pandemic, four decades later, offering a vivid testament to the lasting value of scientific research beyond its immediately reported results.
The fact that a Waverly native made such an instrumental scientific contribution in fighting the coronavirus pandemic would be a source of unique pride not just for his hometown, but also for Iowa.
A 1954 graduate of what was then Waverly High School, Bill is the second child of Maudine and Fred Studier.
His dad arrived in Waverly to study at Wartburg in the 1920s, at the urging of his older brother, Larry, who had started the Waverly Publishing Company in town.
Larry wanted Fred to major in business while helping him with the bookkeeping for the publishing company.
But while he was still working for his brother, Fred’s path crossed with that of Maudine Shoesmith, a Guthrie Center native, and a 1924 graduate of the University of Iowa.
Maudine’s parents, Effie Jane, and Borden W. Shoesmith, a farmer, valued education so much that all of their children earned college degrees: the four daughters, Gladys, Helen, Maudine and Maxine graduated from Iowa; and their only son, and the third living child, Boyd, graduated from Grinnell College.
The story of Fred and Maudine’s courtship is one of romance and grace, and therefore, worth sharing.
Fred first spotted Maudine, the high school English teacher in Waverly, as she crossed the bridge on her way downtown, and asked a friend to arrange an opportunity to meet her in person.
On a blind date, on Oct. 31, 1925, they danced and he sang in her ear, “Let me call you sweetheart, I am in love with you. Let you hear me whisper that you love me, too.”
But it took a while for the magic of the lyrics to work in real life.
Maudine, who taught at the high school in Waverly from 1924 to 1928, took a year-long teaching job in Mason City from 1928 to 1929, presumably to give herself some space before making a life-long commitment and planting permanent roots in Waverly.
On June 12, 1929, she and Fred tied the knot in the living room of her sister Helen’s house in DeWitt, Iowa. Helen and her husband, Harold Irwin, a World War I veteran, later a state senator from 1931 to 1937, as well as a prominent lawyer, hosted the modest party for the newlyweds. Aloha Studier, Fred’s niece, played the piano at the wedding which was attended by a close knit-group of family and friends, according to family archives.
After the wedding, Mr. and Mrs. Studier lived in a rental house up on the hill near the college and eventually settled in what was to become their permanent home at 212 Second Ave. NW, in Waverly, originally built and owned by Larry Studier.
At the time of the move, the couple’s first daughter, Barbara, was about 3. In short order, the other two kids, F. William, born in 1936, and Margaret, born in 1938, arrived.
Ultimately, Fred became the First VP and Treasurer at Lutheran Mutual Life Insurance Company, now CUNA Mutual, where he started in the early 1930s.
Community-minded and engaged, the Studiers encouraged their children to take full advantage of everything a small town like Waverly offered — from carefree existence to cultural events at Wartburg to Saturday morning story hour at the library.
Maudine was passionate about the Waverly Public Library, where she served on the board from 1932 to 1968, according to her obituary. She was also a member of the American Association of University Women, among other civic groups, and in later years, she did a weekly reading for residents at Bartels Lutheran Retirement Community.
Like her mother before her, Maudine held education in high regard. She encouraged her children to practice the piano an hour a day and rewarded them with gold stars upon the successful completion of the weekly schedule.
As family folklore has it, on many occasions the basketball hoop above the family garage had to wait for Bill to finish practicing his piano piece before shooting basketball with his friend, Gilbert Wessel.
“Waverly was a great place to live and grow up,” Bill told Waverly Newspapers. “Our parents were civic minded and we knew many interesting people. We went to the public schools, had many friends, and participated in extracurricular activities like band, singing, scouts, sporting events, concerts at Wartburg, and more.”
Bill’s dad passed away on Feb. 28, 1952, at the age of 50.
Maudine stayed in Waverly until 1974, and eventually moved to the Boston area to live with her daughter, Margaret. She passed away on Dec. 5, 1984, at the age of 82.
Both Fred and Maudine are buried at Harlington Cemetery in Waverly.
PICKING SCIENCE AS A PATH
Where the Studier children’s predisposition to science comes from is only but a guess in the family annals, as it is often hard to pinpoint the origin of a path-picking moment of a young mind.
What is factual, however, is that all three kids pursued science as a career in one form or another. Barbara earned a bachelor’s degree in physiology from the University of Chicago and worked in cardiology; and Margaret graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and later earned a master’s and a doctor of science from the Harvard’s School of Public Health.
Bill’s uncle, Dr. Lester Reynold Dragstedt Sr., may have been one of the early role models for the Studier kids.
Married to Maudine’s oldest sister, Gladys, he was a first generation American born to Swedish immigrants. Impressively, as a surgeon at the University of Chicago, he became the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins.
“He was an inspiration to all who knew him,” multiple family members told Waverly Newspapers.
But then there were also teachers at Waverly High School and professors at Yale who nurtured Bill’s interests until he found his niche in basic research.
Reflecting on what sparked his interest in science, Bill told Waverly Newspapers his father may have noticed it first:
“My dad suggested I might be a scientist before I even knew what the word meant,” Bill wrote in an email to Waverly Newspapers. “I guess it was because I was leaning that way.”
BILL STUDIER’S PROFESSIONAL LIFE
After high school, Bill headed to Yale, where he majored in biophysics, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1958. He received a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1963. A postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine followed before he joined the Brookhaven Lab’s Biology Department in 1964 as an assistant biophysicist.
In 1974, he became a tenured senior biophysicist, eventually chairing the Biology Department there from 1990 to 1999. He retired from the Brookhaven lab in 2015, retaining his title as Senior Scientist Emeritus.
He holds 15 patents of which nine have been licensed and commercialized, including those on the T7 system. It is the most successful technology invented at the Brookhaven Lab so far, according to the website.
His research achievements brought him recognition from the scientific community. In 1990, his peers elected him to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and in 1992 to the National Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 2018, he was elected as a Fellow to the National Academy of Inventors, the highest professional distinction for academic inventors “who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society,” according to a Dec. 11, 2018, article on the U.S. Department of Energy website.
“I have worked in an exciting era in molecular genetics and have had the opportunity to follow my interests and to take a long view in exploring basic biological processes and practical applications,” he is quoted as saying in the article. “I’m happy if some of the techniques I developed for my own work have been widely useful to other researchers.”
Putting Bill’s contribution in context, the article sums up his achievements up to this point like this:
“Approximately 800 companies have licensed the T7 system, which has earned Brookhaven Lab much of its royalty income over the years. These T7 licenses and licenses for the auto-induction bacterial growth media have resulted in royalties and license fees totaling about $72 million — income that helped the Lab to fund strategic research and deployment, maturation of promising technologies, and educational programs.”
In an earlier interview with the Brookhaven lab, Bill gave this explanation:
“I’ve always been interested in solving problems,” he said in 2011, in a story published on the Brookhaven Lab website. “There are many unknowns but scientific investigation can provide definitive answers. The process of testing and proving has always interested me.”
What has been tested and proven, with Bill’s science career is this:
It is not just a list of patents from a successful career but the realization that Bill’s work had a palpable impact on humanity at a time of an unprecedented pandemic.
For that, Bill Studier is owed more than the credit he has been given by his peers.
On a global level, he deserves a visible place in history for helping the world gear up for post-pandemic recovery.
On a human level, he has earned a spot in the heart of everyone who appreciates the vaccine he helped develop.
On the local level, in the town which molded him, and in the family which raised him, he stands as a humble man who deflects attention and is happy that his work has yielded such life-saving, unexpected results because this is what basic research does.
Bill is characteristically succinct when asked about the scope of his legacy as a scientist:
“My entire work on T7 and E. coli, along with the several useful outcomes that ensued,” he said.
Bill and his wife, Susan, were married in California, in 1962.
They have two children, Fred and Carol. Although neither followed in Bill’s footsteps in science, one of their granddaughters, Greta, is a robotics engineer who works for NASA on the Mars Rover Perseverance Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California.
Bill and Sue enjoy classical music concerts, eating out, and traveling, although all these activities have been “curtailed by the pandemic.”
In pandemic isolation, they have been reading books, and Bill is just recently getting back to tennis “after more than a year being kept off the courts because of the pandemic.”
Bill says he and Sue have loved traveling back to Waverly for “50 plus” class reunions, and so did their children, who visited town in their younger years.
Bill’s most precious memories of Waverly are of the people. He hopes he and Sue may plan another trip to town in the future.
“We would love to come back to see old friends at a Fifty Plus WHS reunion,” he wrote, “but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
For her part, Sue, who has walked life’s path with Bill for those 59 years, added this practical insight, putting in context her husband’s contributions, and that of many other researchers in the scientific community:
“To be sure, Bill’s research is only one part of the vaccine story, as thousands of people have worked to rush the vaccine to production,” Sue told Waverly Newspapers. “We’re so grateful that all of our family members are now vaccinated.”