For Fritz Rottman ’59, being involved in unraveling the genetic code revealed an awesome and beautiful aspect of God’s creation. This discovery opened the door to further understanding the genetic blueprint of all living systems. Rottman focused his career on piecing together some of the steps whereby cells use information contained in DNA to build proteins.
As a student at Calvin in the late 1950s, Rottman was interested in chemistry and biology but knew he couldn’t pursue both. “During my senior year, I recall Professor Doc De Vries calling me into his office and asking what I planned to do after graduation. He said, ‘Have you considered biochemistry?’ At that time, biochemistry was a new field that I had never heard of. I remember asking, ‘What’s that?’”
Because it was a blend of both areas of interest, Rottman pursued graduate work at the University of Michigan in biochemistry. Toward the end of his graduate work, he became interested in the research of Marshall Nirenberg, who had just reported on a possible approach for unraveling the genetic code.
“Providentially, my thesis adviser knew Dr. Nirenberg, and that’s how I ended up at the National Institutes of Health, doing a three-year postdoctoral fellowship, working on the genetic code,” Rottman said. “It was a very exciting time because everyone was thinking it might be possible to unscramble the genetic code, but no one knew what the code words would be.”
Approximately every three months, the team discovered a new three-letter code word for one of the 20 amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. “It was like unscrambling a giant living puzzle,” Rottman said. “Eventually we defined the code words for each amino acid and established that the same code words were used in all living systems. We were fortunate to have found that last piece of the puzzle.”
In 1968, Nirenberg won the Nobel Prize for deciphering the genetic code. By that time, Rottman had secured an appointment at Michigan State University as a professor of biochemistry. While at Michigan State, Rottman’s laboratory continued research in molecular biology and described the “start signal” for messenger RNA, the working copy of DNA.
“Like all discoveries in science, our work was built on the shoulders of many other scientists preceding us,” Rottman said. “That’s how science progresses—always building on what is known to make that next step in understanding the unknown.”
After a 15-year tenure at Michigan State, Rottman became professor and chairman of molecular biology at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Medicine. “Case Western was rather unique; there was a close working relationship between basic scientists and many clinical research physicians, which included a major focus on HIV/AIDS and other diseases somewhat unique to developing countries.
“I have always been grateful for my training at Calvin, the broad exposure to a world- and life-view and strong friendships that continue to this day."Because of the nature of his research, Rottman frequently spoke publicly about scientific progress and the intersection of faith and science. The unscrambling of the genetic code and subsequent cloning of specific genes led to many discussions about the potential dangers of this research, where it might lead and if science was meddling in a part of God’s creation that could better be left alone.
Rottman’s perspective is that the advances in our understanding of living systems are gifts from God that can and should be used for the greater good of society.
Now retired and living near Grand Rapids, Rottman remains connected to research through his affiliation as a trustee for the Van Andel Research Institute, an independent, world-class medical research facility, in Grand Rapids. Since retirement in 1999, he and his wife, Carol Vanden Bosch ’60, have also become involved with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC).
“While at Case, Carol and I were frequently challenged by colleagues in clinical medicine to spend time in Africa and become better acquainted with the terrible effects of HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB on the lives of our African neighbors. On our early trips to Africa with CRWRC staff and friends from the area, we experienced both the beauty and the tragedy of life in rural villages, whose residents had no access to drugs for treating these diseases.”
Since that time, the Rottmans have made multiple trips to Africa, focusing primarily on HIV/AIDS treatment. A collaboration has developed between CRWRC, Case Western HIV/AIDS specialists and treatment programs of the Ugandan government. Resources from each of these groups unite in remote villages, where access to drugs would otherwise not be available.
Throughout his career, Rottman has maintained close ties with Calvin. His three children—Doug ’86, Barb Hoogenboom ’83 and Sue Naum ’88—are Calvin graduates. Currently, the Rottmans live on acreage north of Grand Rapids, where they have worked to restore the land to a native grass and wildflower prairie. Calvin biology professors Randy Van Dragt and Dave Warners, along with Calvin students, use the prairie for environmental studies.
Of the Distinguished Alumni Award, Rottman said: “I have always been grateful for my training at Calvin, the broad exposure to a world- and life-view and strong friendships that continue to this day.
I’ve benefited from a solid preparation in science and exposure to many other fields, thanks to the comprehensive curriculum and the dedicated professors at Calvin. Looking back over my career in science, I now see God’s hand more clearly than when I was actively engaged in research. And while visiting Africa or here on the native prairie, I am constantly amazed at God’s creating and sustaining power.”
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