OSU Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

A tribute to Dr. James Brayan Blair - 1990-2001

James Blair.jpgDr. James Bryan Blair, who served as the Department Head of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from 1990 to 2001, passed away on July 16, 2016. He was so dedicated to his job here at OSU, that Jim returned to work only 1 ½ weeks after suffering a sudden death event and undergoing heart bypass surgery!  

Before coming to Oklahoma State University, Jim was a Professor of Biochemistry at West Virginia University. After leaving OSU he went on to serve as the Associate Provost for Research, and then Vice-Provost for Research, at Virginia Tech University. He was also the President of the Oklahoma Affiliate of the American Heart Association while living in Stillwater. 

Blair.jpgWhile at OSU, Dr. Blair was recognized for making people think, and he often spent time imparting his wisdom on others. As long-time departmental citizen Dr. Steven Hartson so eloquently states: “I recall a conversation with Jim that we had in 1994, during which I was babbling excitedly about a new development in our field. Jim appeared to be listening closely, but then replied (with his characteristic leading smile): "so what?" So I babbled some more, exploring the esoteric significance of the new development, only to earn a second "so what?", accompanied again by that same amused Jim Blair smile. So I doubled down, earnestly trying to explain in molecular detail why this development was so interesting. This only earned me a third "so what?", accompanied this time by an outright smirk, as if I was missing the joke. Frustrated, I loudly blurted out: "because this means we can cure cancer!" Jim beamed at me: "ahhhh....now we both get it." It was a profound lesson, delivered in that subtle style that I often think of as Jim's trademark. To this day, I use the tale when teaching students about the need to communicate the fundamental importance of their research."

It was during Dr. Blair’s time as Department Head that the Department changed its name from the Department of Biochemistry to, the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. This name change correctly insinuates that biochemistry produced the knowledge and tools required to manipulate macromolecules at a level that gave rise to the science of molecular biology, that in turn, ushered in the biotechnology era. Today no matter what branch of life sciences you represent, molecular biology probably plays a significant role in developing knowledge in your discipline. Dr. Blair recognized that this name change would also attach our Department to an applied discipline in such a way that it strengthened our ability to acquire majors and graduate students. This change was both scientifically sound and a benefit to the development of our Department into the future.  

Dr. Blair also spearheaded the development of our core facilities, which today we are in the process of renaming the “Genomics and Proteomics Core Facilities”. Jim had the forethought to consider centralizing diffuse departmental resources into something much larger when he decided to form these facilities. Because of his efforts these facilities are now home to some of the most precise equipment known to science which directly benefit 100’s of life science researchers from across our campus and region. Today the facilities boast a state-of-the-art Fusion Tribrid Mass Spectrometer installed by Dr. Steve Hartson and Janet Rodgers, and will soon have an Illumina MiSeq 500 that is the result of a successful NSF-MRI grant written by Dr. Peter Hoyt. With the facilities support, Dr. Hoyt and Dr. Hartson have also been able to provide multiple proteomics and bioinformatics workshops to scientists from all over our region. Dr. Hoyt has also leveraged these facilities to support the development of our Bioinformatics Certificate Program.

Jim is also remembered for being a great biochemist. One of Jim’s most highly cited papers revealed a reversible interconversion of two kinetically distinct forms of rat hepatic pyruvate kinase regulated by glucagon and insulin. This regulation did not involve the total enzyme content of the liver, but rather resulted from the modulation of the substrate dependence. Later work from his laboratory described the isolation, attachment, maintenance, and culture of cells from trout liver. This work also presented evidence demonstrating that the cellular interactions in these cell cultures reflected normal contacts observed in a trout liver. Since fish represent are large percentage of all vertebrate species, the purpose of this work was ultimately to provide a novel model to study environmental toxicity. 

One factor to judge any scientist by, is the impact they have had on those that they mentor. Clearly Dr. Blair had a positive impact on his students; his former student Dr. Aron Fenton states, “As I’ve had the opportunity to cross paths with other scientists who knew Jim at some point in his career, I've always received a positive report about Jim as a scientist and as a person. Those reports are consistent with my own experience. I can use parent-figure when I start trying to define what an outstanding mentor should act like. In turn, I can use mentor when trying to define what an outstanding parent should be like. James Blair was the outstanding father-figure/mentor that taught me to be a scientist, while maintaining a focus to be a good person.”

Jim made wooden chess sets, boxes, wine stoppers, beautiful cabinets, pen and pencil sets for Gov. Henry Bellman (and many others), as well as cars, trucks, train sets and elaborate fire trucks for his grandchildren…he was an exceptional woodworker. He also adored sitting in one place with a good glass of beer or wine, a warm blanket in his lap, and his watercolor set. From his vantage point, whether he was in London, Heidelberg, or at home, he then took the time to reproduce what he saw. Jim knew that reproducing these moments was important and that every day you could do this, you probably should. He reproduced those watercolors on notecards which he shared with family and friends. I should also mention that Dr. Blair loved his pets and in fact, he is being kept with good company; presently his mortal remains share a space with the ashes of his beloved cats Muzzy, Patches, and Bentley. Every good life scientist should aspire to embrace biophilia – the expression of love for all living organisms.

It is a beautiful thing that Dr. Blair and his wife of 50 wonderful years, Daphna L. Killen, grew up together in Waynesburg, PA…the two even attended one another’s two-year old birthday parties. It can be said that in his adult years Jim’s ticker was not always kind to him; but it always made an effort to beat for the love that he gave to his family, and the love he received from all of them. In addition to his wife, Dr. Blair is survived by a son, Dwight Inghram, who resides with his wife, Melissa, in Wilmington, NC and a daughter, Tristan L. Samson living in Charlotte, NC. He leaves five grandchildren, Bryan James and Abigail Josephine Blair; and grandsons Grant Blair, Reed Garrett and Cole Bryant Samson of Charlotte, NC. He is also survived by his sister, Jean Blair Negley, of Charlotte, NC. 

When you walk the halls of our Department, remember that is was Dr. Blair that redefined our name, and thereby expanded our potential impact on the University we all admire. Recognize as well that he had the forethought to initiate the development of a facility that has impacted 100’s of researchers from OSU and the surrounding region. On behalf of the Department, I thank Dr. Blair from the bottom of our hearts for making our Department a better place to work in; we will not forget his leadership.

John E. Gustafson

Below is the link to his official obituary




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