Microbiology prof elected fellow

Colleen Winters

A University professor who spends much of his time being wrong was recently honored for his research accomplishments by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“(Performing research) is a creative pleasure filled mostly with frustration, failure and disappointment and then capped by occasional moments of exaltation,” said Martin Dworkin, professor of microbiology.
Dworkin, 69, was recently elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — an honor he doesn’t take lightly.
“To be elected to an organization like this is an affirmation from one’s peers,” Dworkin said. “And that’s valuable. It’s precious.”
The academy is an honorary society founded in 1780 to help cultivate the arts and sciences in the United States. It is made up of a distinguished group of more than 4,000 scholars and researchers.
When Dworkin is initiated into the academy this September, he and 150 others will join the ranks of a fellowship that includes 160 Nobel laureates and 64 Pulitzer Prize winners.
“When you get elected to something like this, people start listening to you,” he said.
But people have been listening to Dworkin for a long time.
Tony Faras, a professor of microbiology in the University’s Institute of Human Genetics, said Dworkin has been a mentor, close friend and terrific colleague for more than 20 years.
Faras added that when he came to the University to teach he was impressed by Dworkin’s intellect, philosophies and high standards of teaching and research.
Although Dworkin is a world-renowned microbiologist, he wasn’t always interested in becoming a scientist.
“I started out wanting to be an engineer and quickly discovered that it was not for me,” he said.
Dworkin grew up in New York City but spurned the fast-paced urban lifestyle for the pastoral Midwest. He transferred to Indiana University. It was there that he took an introductory course in microbiology.
“It’s been a love affair ever since,” he said.
Dworkin received his doctorate in microbiology from the University of Texas–Austin in 1955 and performed post-doctoral work at the University of California–Berkeley. He served as an assistant professor of microbiology at Indiana from 1957-62 before coming to the University.
After teaching at the University for 35 years, Dworkin said educating students has always stuck in his mind.
“It’s always reminded me of what an important role a teacher has in determining the lives of students,” he said. “Something casual you might say might change someone’s life in a profound way.”
Faras and other colleagues said Dworkin interacts well with students and has tremendous teaching abilities.
“He’s an important leader at the University and an excellent teacher,” said microbiology professor Palmer Rogers.
Dworkin is a member of the American Society of Microbiology. He helped initiate and now heads a University program that allows medical students to receive doctoral degrees in philosophy.
Dworkin’s main area of interest is the study of bacteria, specifically an unusual group of bacteria called Myxo bacteria.
“What’s so unusual about these bacteria is that, unlike many other bacteria, they go through what might be thought of as a multicellular stage,” he said.
These bacteria come together to build complex structures and form cellular antennae, Dworkin said.
Dworkin is studying the bacteria and hopes that they will give him a better understanding of how cells get together and coordinate their actions.
“One of the ways that cells do that is by exchanging chemical messages,” he said. “But there’s another way cells communicate which has to do with cells being in contact with each other.”
Spending your life unraveling the mysteries of science is a privilege, Dworkin added. After working with the bacteria for more than 10 years, Dworkin still talks about his research with awe. “It’s more than interesting,” he said. “It’s captivating.”