A Scientist's Indirect Path

Untampered Arabidopsis: normal strains supported by plastic cylinders in lab

Untampered Arabidopsis: normal strains supported by plastic cylinders in lab. Photo: Les Todd.

Philip Benfey, professor and chair of biology, came to his chosen profession relatively late. In fact, at first he systematically avoided biology. "Probably because my father was a scientist, I wanted to do anything but science," he recalls. "So, after high school I traveled around the world for six years, starting out working for a logging company in Oregon and a ski area in Utah." His plan to hitch rides around the world on sailboats was thwarted by hurricanes, although he made it to Australia, where he worked on a railroad in an iron mine.

After a stint in Japan as a gardener, he ended up in a Parisian garret, writing the Great American Novel and collecting rejection slips "at an alarming rate." It was there that he met his wife, Elisabeth, whom he credits with "the suggestion that maybe I should get a day job," he says, "and that it might be in biology."

Benfey took her advice and launched himself into his new studies as assiduously as he had his travel adventures, earning an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Paris. His academic record won him a post doing graduate studies with Lasker Award-winner Philip Leder at Harvard, where he received a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology.

He did postdoctoral work in plant molecular biology and became an assistant professor at Rockefeller University, before moving to New York University, where he quickly rose through the academic ranks. He was recruited to Duke in 2002.

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