The Original Graduate Reflects on 40 Years at UAB

By Jo Lynn Orr

Ronald Acton
Ronald Acton has seen UAB grow from an extension center to a worldwide scientific power.
Alphabetic order helped secure a place in history for Ronald T. Acton, Ph.D. In 1969, the year UAB emerged as an independent campus in the University of Alabama System, he became the first student to receive a degree from the fledgling university.

But soon after he was awarded a doctorate in microbiology at UAB’s inaugural graduation ceremony, Acton was making history once more. In 1973, after postdoctoral training at UAB, the California Institute of Technology, and Oxford University, Acton came back to Birmingham and joined UAB’s faculty, positioning him to take part in the rise of the university’s research enterprise.

“My primary appointment was in the Department of Microbiology,” Acton says, “but I had joint appointments in medicine, genetics, and epidemiology in the School of Public Health.” Today Acton is an active researcher and adjunct professor of microbiology, and he serves on the School of Medicine’s admissions executive committee, interview committee, and selection committee.

Acton also is writing a book on the history of UAB’s microbiology department—a success story he witnessed firsthand. “Several years ago the department had evolved into the number-one National Institutes of Health-funded department nationwide,” he says.

Recollections and Research

One of Acton’s early mentors was J. Claude Bennett, M.D., who later became president of UAB from 1993 to 1996 and president and chief operating officer of Birmingham-based BioCryst Pharmaceuticals. Acton recalls that Bennett, an immunologist, arrived about the time that he became a doctoral student—and that Bennett gave him a big break soon afterward.

“There was a big immunology conference in New York, and Claude wasn’t able to attend, and so he sent me,” Acton says. “Immunology was a very hot field in those days. Here I was a little second-year graduate student interacting with Nobel Prize winners. It was a remarkable opportunity to see what other institutions and world-renowned researchers were like—as well as see firsthand the professional expectations one should have if one wanted to advance within that venerable group.”

Acton went on to win a coveted fellowship to study with Rodney Robert Porter, the British immunologist who won the 1972 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Gerald M. Edelman for determining the exact chemical structure of an immunoglobulin. “I studied with him in Oxford the year he won the Nobel Prize,” Acton says. “So it was a great experience.”

Spirit of Collaboration

Back at UAB, during its formative years, academic classroom buildings were few and far between. Acton recalls taking classes in Tidwell Hall, a dark, often leaky and drafty classroom/office building on 20th Street (the Kaul Human Genetics Building now stands on the site), and in the School of Dentistry building next door, which then housed graduate school classrooms and labs. Many of the people at UAB at the time “were well known and leaders in their fields, including medicine chair Tinsley Harrison and surgery chief Champ Lyons,” Acton says. “They started recruiting people to UAB, and the whole thing just sort of snowballed.”

Great minds and close quarters encouraged interaction and collaboration, which Acton calls the most rewarding aspect of being at UAB from the beginning. “That was fun,” he says. “I also got to publish in peer journals with a lot of folks in several departments, such as the late Bill Bridgers, the first dean of the School of Public Health.

“We were a young, struggling university, and everybody realized we had to work together to make it. We had to collaborate. So we did—and with very few qualms,” Acton explains. He recalls accompanying Bridgers and Bennett to the National Institutes of Health nearly every month to seek funding for research projects. “We used to work to the last minute—we didn’t have overnight shipping like we do now—and then fly the grant submissions to Washington ourselves.

“Our greatest asset was that entrepreneurial spirit, that willingness to interact with colleagues to accomplish greater goals.  Once I was at Yale for a site visit of their cancer center, and it suddenly struck me that their assistant professors had less freedom of action than our graduate students. I realized then just how important that is.”

Acton says that UAB continues to keep him busy through his current roles and projects. And he is proud to have led the way for thousands of graduates over the past four decades—including two very special ones: his wife, Karin Mainous Acton, who earned an undergraduate degree and completed her dietetic internship at UAB, and his daughter, Shannon Ross, who attended UAB’s medical school and is now an assistant professor of pediatrics/infectious diseases at Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital.