Faculty Close-Up

Placing a Brick in the Wall of Science Knowledge

Becker describes the composition of the medium used for growing microorganisms to Goldwater Scholar Madelyn Crawford (sitting), high school student Eddy Allen, and PhD candidate Seraj Udden.

From his earliest memory, Jeff Becker has been asking questions and searching for answers. This natural interest in learning paid off in school where he showed particular aptitude for science. After high school, Becker enrolled in Emory University where a life-changing experience occurred in a molecular biology class that introduced him to the nature of DNA and how it replicated.

“It was so elegant,” recalls Becker, who joined the UT Knoxville faculty in 1972. “I knew right away that’s what I wanted to do.”

Becker’s fascination with microbiology guided his education and training and has been and continues to be central to his research. Currently, he and his lab group are focusing their research on the molecular biology of membrane transport, the structure and function of peptide pheromones/hormones and their receptors, signal transduction pathways, the discovery of fungal virulence factors, and antifungal drug development. Becker’s research has particular significance to drug design and delivery because the rational design of drugs against intracellular targets must include knowledge concerning passage of these molecules across biological membranes.

In addition to conducting research with his lab group of fifteen, Becker heads up a department of fourteen faculty and forty-five graduate students, and he teaches or co-teaches one class each semester. He also writes research proposals to continue his research funding and drafts scientific articles for publication.

Becker has enjoyed a long, successful career, as he is now serving in his thirty-ninth year at UT, and it shows no signs of stopping its upward trajectory. In 2011, Becker was appointed a Chancellor’s Professor—the highest lifetime honor that can be accorded to a UT Knoxville faculty member. He is also the recipient of a Research Career Development Award from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and holds an NIH grant, now in an impressive thirty-fourth year of continuous funding. And his list of accomplishments only grows from there (see sidebar).

Becker credits his career success to being surrounded by supportive, talented, and caring people, including his wife and family, his office and lab colleagues, and research collaborators like Fred Naider, a chemist and professor at the College of Staten Island at City University in New York, with whom Becker has collaborated during his entire professional career.

Becker values his relationship with students, too, and takes great pride in their accomplishments. One particularly successful former doctoral student is Guy Caldwell, currently a distinguished scientist at the University of Alabama with whom Becker maintains close contact. 

“The truth is that Dr. Jeff Becker is not only a world-class researcher, academic leader, and accomplished professor, but he is equally an inspiring and caring individual who simply defines what it means to be a mentor,” Caldwell says. “He taught me that opportunities in life can be created for oneself through determination.  Now, as a university professor myself, I aspire to instill the same feelings in my own students.”

Becker shows high school student Zach Snow a Petri plate containing mutant yeast generated in his laboratory.

“I truly attribute most of who I have become in life to the countless conversations and example he provided while I was at UT—and still today,” he says. 

Becker describes his career as a privileged opportunity because he has a chance to touch the next generation through his teaching and mentoring and to continue the pursuit of knowledge through his research.  Becker visualizes each discovery in his lab, like the discoveries made by his research colleagues, as adding one more brick to the wall of human knowledge.

“When I as a scientist make an observation and know that I am seeing this phenomenon and I’m the first to see it, it’s a spiritual and deeply emotional experience,” Becker says. “It’s what fuels my passion for my work and my quest to seek new discoveries. The joy of discovery is indescribable!”

–Lynn J. Champion