Peter Agre ‘70 claims that if he had been born into another family, he might not have become a scientist. But the Nobel-prize-winning physician-researcher is the son of Courtland Agre, PhD, who founded the department of chemistry at Augsburg in 1959. And if there was anything his father could do, it was inspire interest in science.
Beloved by students who knew he wanted them to succeed first in class and then in their careers, Courtland taught chemistry to a generation and then encouraged them to do great things with it– hundreds went on to graduate or “He felt very strongly that these young people, even though they were mostly from families of modest personal wealth, could achieve significant things in science, and they did.”
It was fitting, then, when he passed away in 1995, that the Agre family, former students and friends established the Courtland L. Agre Memorial Scholarship to provide “encouragement” as well as financial assistance to juniors or seniors studying chemistry. Since then, 23 students have received awards and a nudge from the professor long gone.
Big picture thinkers
Courtland himself proved that someone born, raised, and educated in Minnesota could make it in other arenas. After earning his PhD at the University of Minnesota, he worked on plastics at Du Pont and adhesives at 3M before deciding to teach (first at St. Olaf and for most of his career at Augsburg). As a member of the faculty, he traveled to India to teach, did research, and one year secured a National Science Foundation grant, enabling him to do a sabbatical at the University of California Berkeley. “So we all [the family of then-seven] moved out there in an old station wagon,” Peter recalls. “We were kind of like the Norwegian version of the Beverly Hillbillies.” There Courtland met luminaries like two-time Nobel winner Linus Pauling, who would later visit Augsburg. “He taught the big picture of what science could provide,” Peter says.
That was a picture he shared with all, including his sons, who majored in chemistry at Augsburg and then went on to medical school. They weren’t pressured to do so, according to Peter. It was more that they were exposed to a parade of former students, colleagues, and visitors from academia, medicine, and industry. “There were plenty of role models,” he says, adding that by comparison, other fields just didn’t seem as important or interesting.
Peter Agre is now a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. Jim Agre ’72, former head of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Wisconsin, is now a member of the rehabilitation medicine faculty at the University of Minnesota. And youngest brother Mark Agre ‘81 is a rehabilitation medicine specialist in St. Paul. Their sister Annetta graduated in 1969 with a major in elementary education.
Paying it forward
Each year, at an annual symposium, the sons of Courtland Agre do what their father did for so many years—encourage students to think big about careers in science. Peter hopes the event opens students’ eyes to new possibilities. “I’m encouraging them to think creatively and not necessarily constrain their aspiration based on family and friends,” he says. His own career has included not only the research on cells that led to his Nobel prize but also working on malaria, advising national leaders on health policy, and engaging in international exchanges with scientists from countries including Cuba and North Korea. “Science opens doors,” he says.
This year at the symposium Jim Agre will talk about the ground-breaking research he did on the late effects of polio. In the 1980s and 1990s, patients who had had polio in the 1950s came to him with questions about problems including fatigue, weakness, and pain. “When I looked at the literature, there were no answers to the questions the patients had,” he says. “That led me to write research grants to get funded so I could study the problems.” His research helped explain what was going on as well as what could be done about it.
Jim Agre now teaches residents to do what he learned—to observe, ask questions, and base conclusions on evidence. He knows his own thinking was heavily influenced by the man who was both father and professor, and he hopes the scholarships given in Courtland’s name will help students to be inquisitive and observant as well. “Supporting students is important,” he says, citing the high cost of education. He then points out another reason for investing in students: “It’s to the benefit of the country to have a population who’ve been taught to look at important issues and ask, ‘Are we really doing the right thing?’”
By Carmen Peota.