Dr. Bob Rice, a professor in the environmental toxicology department, has a knack for growing things. He specializes in culturing and studying epidermal cells, bringing us closer to an understanding of skin cancer and other diseases.
When did you start working at UC Davis?
Gosh, [almost] 20 years ago … 1989, around Labor Day.
What courses did you teach?
My major assignment was a core course, “Biological Effects of Toxic Agents,” and I’ve been teaching that ever since and then gradually adding other courses.
Tell me a little about your academic and professional interests.
In my lab we work primarily with cultured cells and we grow human epidermal cells. We study how they respond to various toxic agents, such as arsenic and Dioxin. My background is kind of varied – people come into toxicology from all different areas and I took a rather circuitous route. I was first interested in physics in college because at that time it seemed like the easiest of the subjects I had considered, but I later realized I was more interested in biological things.
I then went to graduate school in molecular biology and became very interested in protein chemistry, so I worked on that for a while as a post doc. It then became clear that to do interesting protein chemistry it was important to have a cell system to work in – some kind of tissue that you can study diseases and things like that. I had an opportunity to work in a lab where they studied how to grow epidermal cells. I then saw an advertisement for a position in toxicology, and they wanted cell biologists. I thought, “Well, I can do that!“
What do you think the broader scope of your research is, or what are you working towards?
Well, for many years people have wondered how cells know when to take the next step in their differentiation program.… The epidermis happens to be an interesting case of that because it’s something we can see.
There have been many interesting skin diseases and many of them have been quite mysterious over the past, but they seem to involve the cells bonding inappropriately to signals from the outside, for example, UV light which causes skin cancer. If we can understand more about the basic decision-making process within the cells: how they send signals back and forth and within the cell, and how chemicals can interfere with that, then that will tell us a lot about how these diseases and processes occur.
You mentioned that you’re interested in the effects of cigarette smoke, is this part of your research?
No, it’s something that I’ve been interested in for many years, though. I’ve been in a number of advocacy groups like GASP (Group Against Smoking Pollution) and Americans for Non-Smoker’s rights. I remember back in the old days when students smoked in class – I was here at UCD at one point as a post doc and the problem of smoking in buildings and offices was actually quite controversial on campus. When Larry Vanderhoef first came to UC Davis, that was one of the issues that he addressed.
I remember going into a lecture and a student sat down beside me, took out his cigarettes and asked, “Do you mind if I smoke?” And I said, “Yes, actually, it makes me really sick.” He said, “Oh, really, is that true?” just listening, nodding and mechanically lighting his cigarette. It didn’t occur to him that his smoking would have an effect on me, but all you could do in those days was get up and move somewhere else.
What do you like to do when you’re not working in your lab?
Well, it seems like when I’m not here, I’m thinking about being here. But, I like plants and so we’ve managed to plant a bunch of different trees around the yard. We have about a dozen citrus trees and about half as many other fruit trees and so I enjoy those a lot. I like growing various kinds of plants, especially tomatoes since it’s such a great place to grow them. That’s one thing that I missed out on living in the east – it just wasn’t the same.
DARCEY LEWIS can be reached at email@example.com.