McMacken Annual Lecture Highlights Data and Community
Data-driven scientists and students remember BMB biochemist Roger McMacken who nurtured courageous research by creating a home for data truth-seekers.
By Suzanne Flinchbaugh
Published February 14, 2023
After more than 50 years together as partners and professionals, Maria McMacken knew her husband Roger’s motto by heart: data is truth. She also knew his lifelong commitment to cultivating a lab community of data-loving scientists in his field of expertise: DNA replication. When he passed away in 2019, Maria and her family wanted to honor both aspects of Roger’s work—data and community—in the School’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which Roger chaired from 1990 to 2008.
With Roger’s memory close, Maria and her daughters brimmed with pride this past December when they attended the inaugural Roger L. McMacken Jr. Lecture, along with a sizeable in-person audience of family members and BMB faculty, students, and alumni. His mentees recounted stories of his passion for scientific discourse, and the difference it made in their careers. It was a full-hearted tribute to the many roles he filled: molecular biochemist, colleague, and mentor—not to mention the man who enjoyed skiing, gardening, and a good debate about the Baltimore Ravens football team.
School of Medicine biophysics professor James Berger presented his talk, “How to Build a DNA Copying Machine,” noting that his research is inspired by the same question that motivated Roger’s work: what makes a cell alive? Indeed, Roger’s research from the ’80s and ’90s on the molecular mechanisms that control DNA replication in the bacteriophage lambda is foundational to that question today. Berger, who co-directs the Cancer Chemical and Structural Biology Program at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, explained how Roger’s enduring enthusiasm for “shining a light in the dark places of the cell that we don’t understand” made his lab a wonderful place to work.
Certainly, Roger’s commitment to the give-and-take of the scientific community can be seen in the lab culture he maintained, one that actively engaged junior scientists. Supporting those up-and-comers is Maria’s other funding priority, which is why she also chose to include an annual award fund for a junior BMB faculty member, postdoctoral fellow, or graduate student.
McMacken Lab alum Kojo Mensa-Wilmot, PhD ’88, shares Roger’s mantra—data is truth. Now a cellular biologist and dean of Kennesaw State University College of Science and Mathematics, he explained how Roger created an extraordinarily inclusive lab—long before today’s diversity initiatives—based simply on a love of science. “We cared about the science and the love we had for those who were doing the science in Roger’s lab,” Mensa-Wilmot said. “We just loved working together on science.”
Rob Jordan, PhD ’92, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and fellow McMacken Lab alum, recalls how Roger transformed his mentees’ lives “by cultivating the best from everyone who worked in his lab.” And, he continued, it was Roger’s insistence on rigor and thoroughness—"his way of doing science”—that endured, preparing him and others for their personal and professional careers.
Roger recognized how important building community was to his students, the School, and to the field. Community builds confidence, which in turn supports courageous research, reinforcing a cycle that expands science and its application.
With their gift, Maria, her family, and others have provided lasting support for Roger’s legacy, his community of data truth-seekers, and public health writ large.
Suzanne Flinchbaugh is a writer in the Office of External Affairs at the Bloomberg School. For more information about making a gift to support lab science students and junior faculty, or the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, please contact Gary Whidbee, director of principal and major gifts, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: Mollye Miller