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Memorial: Austen Riggs

Memorial: Austen Riggs

We were sad to hear of the death of emeritus professor Austen Riggs last Monday. We send our heartfelt condolences to his friends and family.

Below is a profile written by Steve Franklin several years ago for a print magazine of the School of Biological Sciences, followed by a collection of remembrances from colleagues and former students. You can read his obituary in the Austin American-Statesman here.

Profile of Austen Riggs

Austen RiggsAusten Riggs II, a professor emeritus in the College of Natural Sciences, retired with over 50 years of service to The University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University in 1951, which he followed with postdoctoral studies in the laboratory of George Wald, also at Harvard, from 1952 until 1956. Afterwards, he joined the Zoology Department here at UT Austin.

During his time at UT, he won several awards for his research and his teaching. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for work with Dr. Max Perutz at Cambridge University from 1960-61. He was given an NIH Research Career Development Award from 1962 to 1972. He received an Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award from UT in 1989 and then a College of Natural Sciences Teaching Excellence Award in 2002 for his undergraduate teaching. In 1991, he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was promoted to professor emeritus in Spring of 2011.

Over the years, Riggs’ research focused on the relationship between structure and function in the immense diversity of hemoglobins found in organisms ranging from yeast to worms to frogs to humans. Specific hemoglobins have evolved to adapt to the metabolic needs of each organism. One organism he studied was a carnivorous nemertean worm of the genus Cerebratulus. He investigated the structure and function of the neurohemoglobin found in this worm’s brain, which appears to give it the ability to hunt prey in anoxic marine muds.

Science was an interest of Riggs from an early age. As a youth, he spent many long days exploring meadows, woods and streams in the Connecticut countryside. His early enthusiasm was for snakes, which was soon followed by a passion for ornithology. However, his path was finally forged by an eye-opening biochemistry course with George Wald during his junior year at Harvard. He was hooked and soon joined Wald’s laboratory as a graduate student. At Wald’s suggestion, he studied the metamorphosis of hemoglobin in the tadpole as it transformed into a frog. He found that while the tadpole’s hemoglobin was virtually pH independent, the adult frog’s hemoglobin was very pH dependent. Alas, it would be several decades before this phenomenon could be explained! Yet this experiment and many others led to his lifelong fascination with the relationship between structure and function in hemoglobin in a wide array of organisms.

An adventurous spirit is another aspect that Riggs cultivated all of his life. He had a love of mountain climbing that began his junior year, when he was invited to go winter camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Three years later he was helping organize an expedition to Peru to climb Yerupaja, at the time the highest unclimbed peak in the Western Hemisphere. That adventure has been immortalized in the 1952 book, The Butcher - The Ascent of Yerupaja by John Sack. Two years later, in 1952, he dreamed of taking aerial photos of the mountains of Peru. He proceeded to learn how to fly a Piper Cub and tackled this dream head on and nurtured a fondness for flying ever since. During that same year, he met his future wife, Claire Killam, a graduate student at Radcliffe. It was when he married Claire that he began what he called “the most wonderful adventure of all.”

Remembrances from Colleagues and Former Students

Eric Pianka, professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, recalled a story that Riggs told him about a near-death experience he'd had while flying an airplane over Mexico many decades earlier. He planned to refuel at a small airport near the coast of southern Mexico, but a large thunderstorm blew in from the Pacific. He could go around the storm by flying out over the ocean or stay over land and fly through the clouds. He chose to stay over land and when he thought he was close, he dropped down out of the clouds.

 The Butcher book cover
This 1952 book chronicled an attempt by Riggs and others to scale the highest unclimbed peak in the Western Hemisphere.

"Imagine his chagrin when he suddenly found himself flying down a canyon with rocky cliffs on both sides!" recalls Pianka. "He told his passenger to check to see which way the water was flowing in the creek below — of course it was going west, the same way he was, and it led them to the airport."

Several people recalled that Riggs regularly climbed the stairs in the Patterson Building and R.L. Moore Hall to stay in shape.

"He told me that this was part of his training for a mountain climbing trip to the Andes," recalls Lynne McAnelly, lecturer in the former School of Biological Sciences.

"I would occasionally race him [up the stairs], but his damn legs were longer than even mine, and I did not win," recalls Jim Bull, professor in the Department of Integrative Biology.

Even in his 70s and 80s, he continued to be very active. McAnelly recalls seeing him walking on crutches in the early 2000s and assumed that he had fallen in his home. "But no," says McAnelly. "He had broken his leg or ankle rock climbing in New Hampshire!"

Riggs was also a beloved teacher and mentor. He took Chintan Modi, a graduate student of associate professor Misha Matz, under his wing.

"I have always felt that I wouldn't have my degree today without the generous help from Dr. Riggs and Mrs. Riggs," says Modi. "I will remain forever indebted to them for their help in the study of oligomerization of fluorescent proteins using the static light scattering instrument in their lab."

"Even though there was a very large age difference between us, I also considered Dr. Riggs a friend, and his advice, support and encouragement were invaluable during one of the toughest points in my graduate career, and for that I am grateful to them," adds Modi. "Between experiments, I very much enjoyed listening to his stories from his travels, conferences and scientific debates in the field of hemoglobin."

Modi summed up the feelings of many at hearing the news of his loss:

"It is a sad day for UT-Austin having lost a very good scientist, mentor, teacher and advocate for students. He will be missed; but, he will live on in our memory and the lessons he has taught us over the years."

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Saturday, 25 March 2023

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