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Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Burl Henderson’s Journey from the Air Force to Retirement

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Author: Dr. Burl Henderson | Category: GSBS Alumni | Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry(MBB) | Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry | March 15, 2018

When I was a young child, my father, a proficient and successful man, had a great influence on my life. He used to tell me that a son or daughter owed it to society to attempt to be more successful than his or her parents. He was a very accomplished man, and this set a high, high bar for my attainment. That was probably the primary impetus in my career. Achieving as much as my father had would be a difficult chore, and more than he had attained seemed virtually impossible. As I grew into my teens, I realized that one of the things I could do that my father hadn’t done was to earn a doctoral degree. That became the overwhelming goal of my life, to earn a doctorate in an area I really enjoyed. A humorous aside -- my father received a doctoral degree before I did.

When I started my undergraduate college career, I took a course in biology taught by a brilliant professor, Dr. Philip Levereault. I told Dr. Leverault my goal, and he spent time with me discovering my interests. He suggested that I consider either biochemistry of physiology. Biochemistry settled into first place. I took the remainder of my undergraduate training with this goal in mind.

In 1971, I was an Air Force officer stationed at the Pentagon. When I was about to reach the end of my Air Force commitment, I wanted to start my doctoral program. I visited each of the then four medical schools in Texas and talked to representatives of both biochemistry and physiology. I was most impressed with the biochemistry program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. It had the characteristics I wanted, including an early exposure to most areas of biochemistry during the first year, where we spent about six weeks working in each faculty member’s laboratory.

Early in the second year we were tasked with choosing one of those laboratories as the one we wanted to work in toward our degree; the leader of that laboratory would serve as our major professor. I enjoyed most of the rotations, but one dominated my attention. The laboratory of Dr. John C. Lee fascinated me. He was interested in molecular biology, and I was interested in regulation of protein synthesis. We were a good fit. Three years later I found myself writing a dissertation based on my research in the regulation of hemoglobin production through the change from embryonic hemoglobin to adult hemoglobin in the developing embryos of chickens. I finished my doctoral work in May 1976.

I thoroughly enjoyed my four years at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. The biochemistry program was young and provided many opportunities for students to excel. One of my achievements during that time was to act as student representative of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences to the faculty committee on graduate studies. This meant that I was obliged to carry any complaints that the student body had about various programs to the faculty committee. The committee consisted of a professor from each area of concentration in the graduate school and the dean of the graduate school, then Dr. Armand Guarino. This meant that I found myself often at odds with the faculty or the Dean in representing a member of the student body. Many valuable lessons came from this experience. Approaching senior officials with bad news or news contrary to their desire was a learning experience that paid off richly in my remaining career and made me even prouder of my UT Health San Antonio roots.

My current position after forty years of working is my favorite of all – retirement. I had a fascinating career working in private industry as well as in public education. The advice I would give new students is, look at all the possibilities that occur during one’s professional career. Sometimes these opportunities may seem to be radical departures from one’s training but would make a much more interesting working experience. After serving as a biochemist in both private industry and in public universities, I was offered the position of associate vice president at The University of Texas at San Antonio. This would be a major change in my career because it would be a full-time job in a completely different area of endeavor. I would have to decide whether to take this offer – a risky one at best – and give up my position as a biochemist. I took the risk, and that made all the difference in my career.

After four years as an associate vice president at UTSA, I was chosen to move to The University of Texas at Arlington as a vice provost. After four years at UTA, I had the opportunity to become a vice president at Howard University in Washington, D.C. This was one of the most enjoyable times of my career. Howard is a historically black institution of excellent academic reputation. I found myself in the unique position of being a member of the minority. The time I spent at Howard was stimulating and fun. It involved making friends with people whom I would never otherwise have met. It made my decision of earlier years always to take the road less traveled seem the most important decision I had ever made. I would encourage new students in graduate school to keep this in mind when unusual opportunities offer themselves as great adventures. The unusual opportunity I had had as a fourth-year graduate student in presenting student problems to the faculty and the dean gave me great training for being a successful vice president.

My days in retirement are filled with reading, writing, and studying a variety of areas in addition to biochemistry. I am studying amateur astronomy and struggling with an ancient Greek course. Such studies keep the mind from wasting away, I hope. I am also busy with photography, a hobby I have enjoyed throughout my career. The joy of doing things that you want to do is one of the great results of a successful working career. Some people dislike the idea of retirement, but I admit that I have enjoyed the time I have spent the way from higher education. The training I received from my years at UT Health San Antonio prepared me for a successful working career and an enjoyable retirement.

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