As Paul Linser watched the moon rise out of the ocean from his hotel room in Marineland, he called his wife Barbara collect and said “Baby, this is the place.” It was 1982.
He was in the small coastal town for a job interview at the University of Florida Whitney Laboratory in St. Augustine. He was coming from chilly big-city Chicago, where he was a research assistant professor at the University of Chicago.
He didn’t know much about the Whitney Laboratory except what he could find in those pre-internet days beyond the advertisement for the tenure-track position.
“The little bit I could find out about Whitney, with no internet or cellphones, seemed to fit,” Linser said.
The advertised position was for someone who worked with the nervous system; worked in developmental biology; knew their way around microscopes; was knowledgeable in the current hottest technology — monoclonal antibodies; and used a marine model system (although that was flexible).
He fit all of the bills except for the marine model — at the time he worked with chicken embryos.
At the very end of his application he added this sentence: “If I had not been born in Cincinnati, Ohio, I would have been a marine biologist.” He thinks that that sentence and the work he was doing with one of the world leaders in developmental biology, Aaron Moscona, raised his application up to the attention of the then director of the Whitney Lab Dr. Michael Greenberg.
“So apparently the faculty voted to take a closer look and Mike Greenberg called me before inviting me to visit and asked me a very telling question: ‘Could a city boy like me survive in the boondocks?,’” said Linser. “I convinced him over the phone that I certainly could and so in a short time I visited the Whitney Lab.”
And the rest is history.
Now 38 years later, Linser is taking a bow. Linser is the second-longest serving faculty member at Whitney Laboratory, where he contributed significantly to science in the areas of disease vector research and aging and hearing research.
His research focus included the cellular and molecular biology of developing systems, covering the mid-development decisions that stem cells make to become specific mature cell types, to the decline in cellular efficiency that occurs with age. This research used a wide variety of animals from fish to insects to human beings.
“For over 25 years my students and staff and I investigated the cell-cell interactions that mediate cell differentiation in the vertebrate neural retina,” said Linser.
He was a co-PI on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) training grant to the UF College of Medicine Department of Ophthalmology for many years.
Linser was instrumental in bringing the tools of molecular biology to Whitney by going on sabbatical leave to study gene analyses at the NIH National Eye Institute and by identifying a subsequent faculty hire who was a trained expert in gene and mRNA characterization, Robert Greenberg, in 1990.
In the next two decades, the Whitney Lab blossomed into a leading force in molecular biological analyses of many animal model systems as an outcome of the shift in technical focus brought on in part by Linser’s efforts.
He was a leader for highly competitive Whitney Laboratory’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program from 1994-2000 as Whitney’s program was ramping up. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program provides undergraduate college students with the opportunity to perform scientific research, often their first research opportunity.
He worked to add a confocal microscope to the lab’s equipment repertoire. The advanced imaging system produces very high resolution and 3D rendering of fluorescently labeled living or prepared specimens.
“It quite literally makes it possible to look into the machinery of life and produce a picture of how molecules such as proteins, RNA, DNA and many more interact to create the ebb and flow that results in everything from birth to death to disease and beyond,” Linser said.
He stayed busy outside of the lab, with his love of folk music and involvement with the Gamble Rogers Music Festival and Concert Series. He played his guitar and sang in two performing ensembles, Paradox (a duo) and Sunset Monday (a trio). In honor of Gamble Rogers and the commemorative events produced in St. Augustine for Gamble’s contributions, Linser instituted “Radio-Free Oklawaha County” radio show on WFCF 88.5 FM which airs every Saturday morning.
He entertained Whitney audiences, too. Evenings at Whitney lectures (now postponed due to COVID-19) brought hundreds of people each month eager to learn about science from speakers from around the world in Whitney’s Lohman Auditorium. Linser chaired these lectures for several years, giving thoughtful speaker introductions and MC support. And also for many years, Linser produced a concert series in the same auditorium that was co-sponsored by the Whitney Laboratory and the Gamble Rogers Folk Festival Inc.
His science involvement carried over to younger generations, too. He provided three levels of involvement for Sebastian Middle School. One as a member of the Kiwanis of Historic St. Augustine through which they financially supported the STEAM program. Secondly as the president of the non-profit 501(c)3 organization the Gamble Rogers Folk Festival Inc. that financially supported the purchase of musical instruments for their string band.
And finally, as a Whitney Lab professor.
“I was asked to join the advisory board for the STEAM program and to represent the Whitney Lab at their annual career day,” said Linser.
Many years of impactful research later brought prestigious UF academic and meritorious acknowledgments including term professorship in 2017. During the final 20 years of Linser’s career (overlapping with his early emphasis on neural development) he became an internationally recognized expert in the biology of the world’s most dangerous animal, the mosquito.
“My career at the Whitney Lab and the University of Florida was magical in respect to the diversity of projects I and my students and colleagues were able to pursue,” Linser said.
He was not only a member of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology in the College of Medicine but he had reason to seek and be granted affiliate membership in the Department of Neuroscience, the Department of Biology, the Department of Microbiology and Cell Science, the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences and the Department of Nematology and Entomology. Through all of these affiliations he was able to interact with a large number of students, post docs, colleagues and friends.
“The magic of doing scientific research as a career is actually most visible in the people with whom a science nerd like me gets to explore and to share the mind-boggling wonder of it all!” said Linser.
Whitney Laboratory is a biomedical marine research institute of the University of Florida. It is composed of nine faculty-led laboratories that use marine organisms for basic biological research that can be applied to human health, understanding of local natural resources, and insight into our dynamic local environment. For information, visit whitney.ufl.edu or call 904-461-4000.