Former iBio Graduate Students Highlight the Many Accomplishments of Bernd Fritzsch, Biology's Former Departmental Executive Officer

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October 27, 2020

Below is the full version of the article that appeared in the Winter 2020 Department of Biology Newsletter on Bernd Fritzsch, former Departmental Executive Officer. The article was written by his former graduate students at the University of Iowa - Karen Elliott Thompson, Clayton Gordy, Jeremy Duncan, Ben Kopecky, and Tian Yang.

Dr. Bernd Fritzsch has dedicated his life to science and to his family. He wakes up each day filled with boundless optimism, undying passion, and a belief that we can truly make a difference each and every day. Since joining the Department of Biology in 2008, Bernd has had a leading and lasting impact on making the department what it is today. When Bernd arrived as Departmental Executive Officer (DEO), a position he held until stepping down in 2016, he was immediately challenged with many obstacles. That year saw the retirement of six faculty members, historically severe flooding, and the most significant economic recession since the Great Depression, which resulted in a dramatic reduction of monetary support for the University of Iowa. With the guidance of Bernd, the department was able to overcome these obstacles and began laying the foundation for rebuilding and growth. Bernd advocated for the hiring of new faculty members and spearheaded the successful submission of a P30 grant, which in addition to bringing much needed resources, sponsored extensive collaboration. Bernd made significant improvements to the graduate education program, the most prominent of which included a significant decrease in the time of degree completion, lowering it from 7 years to less than 5 and a half years.   Despite a shorter completion time, publications for graduate students markedly increased, highlighting the caliber of students the department attracted. Through his many collaborations, Bernd increased the funding for the Carver Center for Genomics, further opening its resources for the entire department. He also obtained funding to develop a multi-user multi-photon Microscopy Facility in the Department of Biology. Amazingly, he was able to accomplish this all while growing his lab and obtaining a competitive renewal of his R01 grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). During Bernd’s time as DEO, the department added six new faculty members, oversaw a taskforce to update the undergraduate curriculum, and oversaw the department’s first full-scale departmental review. In addition to his role as DEO of the Department of Biology, Bernd served as the Director for the Aging Mind and Brain Initiative as well as the Director of the Center on Aging at the University of Iowa. Bernd retired at the end of 2019, but for those that know him well, he characteristically continues to immerse himself in research at the bench. 

Bernd’s passion for science originated from his early training in Germany. Bernd received his Ph.D. in Biology/Zoology in 1978 from the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany, where he studied the anatomy of visual afferents and mechanosensory efferents of salamanders. He then held faculty positions at the Technical University of Darmstadt and University of Bielefeld before taking a position as a Research Fellow at Scripps Institute for Oceanography with Glenn Northcutt. At Scripps, Bernd studied Axolotl electroreceptor and mechanosensory systems. From there, Bernd moved to Nebraska and took a faculty position at Creighton University Medical School where he eventually became Assistant Dean of Research, before his move to the University of Iowa.

Over his career, Bernd has received numerous grants from various funding sources for his research, including grants from NIH, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the German Science Foundation. His funding from NIH was continuous from 1992 onward. This funding allowed Bernd to pursue his various research interests over the past decades, which propelled him as one of the world’s foremost comparative molecular neuroembryologists. Remarkably, his efforts have led to a current total of nearly 300 published papers, which have been cited over 21,000 times. Most recently, he served as Editor in Chief for a comprehensive reference series totaling 5,200 pages, which covers the neural mechanisms underlying the different senses. Very few people could have taken on such an endeavor. Even after his retirement, Bernd continues to be highly engaged in research and currently is Co-PI on a grant through NIH to study age-related hearing loss. In testament to his research efforts, Bernd is the recipient of numerous awards, such as his appointment in 2010 as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Outstanding Mentor Award at Creighton, and Distinguished Research Career Award at Creighton. At the University of Iowa, Bernd was the Endowed Iowa Entrepreneurial Professor and was named Collegiate Fellow in 2017, the highest faculty honor awarded by the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. More globally, Bernd was appointed to the very prestigious German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in 2015, in addition to having previously been awarded the distinguished Heisenberg Programme award.

Bernd had a strong devotion to quality education, both in the classroom and in mentoring the many students and postdocs in his lab. Bernd taught many undergraduate and graduate level courses for the department. In his twelve years in the department, Bernd mentored three Postdoctoral fellows, four Ph.D., one master’s, and twelve undergraduate students. Many of these trainees have developed into independent NIH-funded scientists. Without exception, each trainee remembers their time with Bernd as a period of intellectual curiosity and both personal and professional growth. His nurturing of not only the mind but also of the career and life of his mentees has allowed each of them to flourish and become impactful members of science and medicine.

One of Bernd’s favorite quotes is, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” However, while Bernd may now spend more time with his wife and dogs, many will consider it difficult to find evidence that he is truly absent from the department.