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After major advances in hematology, David Bodine retires with an eye towards mentorship and a garden

Bodine, leader of the NHGRI Hematopoiesis Section and chief of the Genetics and Molecular Biology Branch, now scientist emeritus after 38 years at NIH.

When David M. Bodine, Ph.D., arrived at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a postdoctoral fellowship in Arthur Nienhuis’s laboratory in the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, he thought he was only going to stay for a year or two and then venture elsewhere to start his own research group.

Two years passed. And then his enjoyment of the science, resources, mentorship and local collegiality led to another 36 years. In that time, Dr. Bodine founded and led the Hematopoiesis Section at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and was later named chief of NHGRI’s Genetics and Molecular Biology Branch.

Dr. Bodine’s scientific career was first set on course in college, when two professors recognized his interest in biology. Those professors became his mentors, sensing his potential beyond what Dr. Bodine considered a sub-par academic record. These mentors encouraged his interest and abilities in research, and through their guidance and encouragement, Dr. Bodine saw the expanding opportunities in science and embarked on what would become an impressive research career.

After graduating from Colby College with a bachelor’s degree in 1976, Dr. Bodine completed a master’s degree at Rutgers University. He then obtained a Ph.D. at the Jackson Laboratory, where he began studying diseases of blood cells. Such diseases would later become the focus of his scientific endeavors at NIH.

Throughout his career, Dr. Bodine’s accomplishments have furthered the genetic understanding of blood disorders and opened avenues for more effective treatments. Among his contributions, he identified the genomic mutations that cause Diamond Blackfan anemia, a condition in which patients cannot produce enough red blood cells. Each new piece of the genetic puzzle helps diagnose more patients with this condition at a molecular level, expanding patients’ options for the bone marrow donations needed for treatment.

Dr. Bodine contributed to both biological insights about disease-causing mutations and the ability to overcome the effects of such mutations through gene therapy. He took part in the first successful gene transfer studies in a primate, an important step in the development of gene therapies for human use.

Throughout his scientific career, Dr. Bodine has aspired to create the same positive impact for his trainees that his mentors provided for him. His efforts have not escaped recognition, as he has been named NHGRI Mentor of the Year three times, the NHGRI record for this award.

With a sense of humor and a vision for the future, Dr. Bodine reflected on his career, mentorship and the fields of gene therapy and hematology in a recent interview with science writer Anna Rogers.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Anna Rogers: How did you first get interested in science?


David Bodine: I would never have gotten into science if it hadn't been for a couple of people at Colby College. I was a biology major, but I wasn't a really good one. My two mentors actually believed that I had some ability in that area, and my academic record wouldn’t suggest I had ability in any other areas. For some reason that I've never quite understood, they noticed something in me that I didn't notice about myself and helped me find it. That's what got me to start thinking about doing science as a career.

Rogers: What do you see as most exciting on the horizon of hematopoiesis research?


Bodine: What's coming now is something we've been wanting for a long time. Really big questions in hematopoiesis are, “Where is the stem cell? When is it active? What does it do?” We have great molecular profiles for all the different cell types, but we really need to understand why some stems cells do one thing and other ones do different things.


I think that the tools are all there. Developmental biologists have been able to do single-cell gene expression profiling on whole tissues. If we apply those tools in sections of the bone marrow, surveying stem cells in the context of surrounding cells, we can turn around and ask, “Why does that one stem cell go nuts and become leukemia? Is it because of where it is, or is it because of what it is?” If you could then change the microenvironment and cure leukemia that way, it'd be a lot better than chemotherapy.

Rogers: What do you see as the most exciting future opportunities in gene therapy?


Bodine: When we founded the American Society of Gene Therapy, we wanted to make these therapies low cost and widely available. Now, 20 years later, gene therapy has been very successful for treating any number of diseases, but it is far from low cost, and it is far from widely used. I really think that's where the field has to go in the future.

Rogers: How have you approached mentorship in your career?


Bodine: I started off with the people back at Colby College. I've had exceptional mentors at every stage, but they were the first. I've just tried to pay that forward, so I've really made an effort to be a great mentor. My Ph.D. advisor Jane Barker was great. Art Nienhuis was great, and I've tried to be just as good as I can be at it.


Whenever it would be easier to take someone who's more experienced, I've always had a place for at least one college student, because everybody needs a chance. I like to look for someone who may have come from a background where they didn't have access to the academics that a lot of other kids did, but they're curious and they want to work. It all goes back to the same thing, right? Somebody took an interest in me and took a chance, and I think the only way that you can repay that is to pay it forward.

Rogers: Is there any advice you would give to young scientists entering the field of genomics and hematology?


Bodine: You shouldn’t choose a field just because a famous scientist works in that field. You should choose it because you're curious about it. There's always some exciting stuff coming out about hematopoiesis, stem cells and hematology, but I see plenty of people who are curious about neurobiology. 


I don't think you should try to put a square peg in a round hole. You should go to every seminar that's offered and see what really makes you go, “Boy, I'd like to work on that next.” Just follow your curiosity, and if you're smart, it'll lead you straight to genomics and hematology.

Rogers: What are your plans for retirement?


Bodine: Over the course of the next year, I'm going to be around as an emeritus, working on a couple of big projects at NIH. I'm still very active in the American Society of Hematology, and that's not going to change. But eventually, my wife and I would like to move to northern New England and teach for one or two years at small liberal arts colleges, like Colby College. Then after that, I want to have a big garden and a greenhouse. That's probably going to keep me pretty busy.

Last updated: November 18, 2022