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An Interview with the Wetegroves

This past November we interviewed two alumni, the Wetegroves. Both are graduates of the University of Texas at Austin and both majored in the biological sciences while they were here. In fact the two met here!

We have just recently published our most recent issue of the In Vivo Newsletter. The Wetegroves were two of the alumni featured in this issue. Unfortunately, we were not able to use all of the interviews due to space issues. So, we decided to publish the full interviews here for your perusal. Please enjoy!

The Wetegroves
The Wetegroves on campus in October 2011

Robert received a BA in microbiology in 1970, an MA in microbiology in 1972 and a PhD in microbiology in 1978, all from UT Austin. He then received an MBA in Technology Management from Illinois Institute of Technology in 1988 and worked for Nalco Chemical Company research and development for 30 years, retiring in 2008. Robert’s father also studied bacteriology at UT in the early 1940s.

What kind of work/research did you do after you left UT?
When I left UT in 1978 I knew I wanted to work in industry. I sent letters to the research directors of about 150 companies in an act that would be correctly called spamming today. The first offer I had was from Nalco Chemical, the leading industrial water treatment company, and I took it. Nalco's business is to provide products and expertise for preventing water-related problems in every industrial process that uses water. I did not realize at the time how perfectly Nalco’s business in water treatment matched my abiding interest in microbial ecology and physiology. The connection is based on the truism that "where there is water, there is life." Microbes will do what they do, and the challenge is to retard their effects where they cause problems and to promote their role in processes where they create value. My first research project was to evaluate the effectiveness of additives to enhance biological treatment of industrial waste water. I learned that the effect of the additives was indeterminate, but that a good business could be developed billing for the additives while providing value with expertise in operating the waste treatment system. I also learned of the perils of the Hawthorne Effect, which encapsulates the observation that human activities go better when someone is paying attention to the workers, regardless of the variables applied. Lesson One

My next assignment was as Market Development Manager, working with researchers at Imperial Chemical Industries in the UK to commercialize an enzymatic process for destroying cyanide in certain industrial waste streams. The beautiful technology was killed by some ugly economic realities -- chemical and physical treatments were cheaper and more broadly effective. I reinforced this lesson with a subsequent project to enzymatically remove a potentially toxic monomer residual from Nalco's water soluble polymer products. Head-on chemistry was cheaper, no matter how elegant and robust the biological process. Lesson learned -- choose your battles carefully. Lesson Two.

Following this experience on the commercial side, and gaining an MBA in technology management, I went on to another laboratory assignment where I worked with a start up company to develop monoclonal antibody based tests for residuals of water-soluble polymers. This technique was patented, commercialized and generated substantial license revenue for Nalco.

Over the past few decades microbiologists have increasingly realized that many microbes grow on surfaces, rather in than as dispersed individual cells frequently studied in the past. Biological slimes also commonly exist in industrial processes, where they cause expensive problems such as corrosion, poor heat transfer, product contamination with sloughed slime, and impeded flow. In the absence of good biofilm monitoring techniques treatments were either too small (wasting money on ineffective doses) or too big (wasting money by feeding excess product). Working with a colleague at Nalco, we invented and commercialized monitors for industrial biofouling detection. With appropriate control strategies these monitors are currently used to optimize biocide feed in industrial processes. The results are better preventive control of biofilms and a lower chemical dose required. Greener treatments achieved; one can manage what one can measure. Lesson Three.

Enzymologists have long searched for applications in the paper making process and for several years I managed an international team comprising Nalco and Genencor researchers attempting to find profitable and sustainable applications. It eventually became clear that in the absence of solid intellectual property protection, commodity enzyme manufacturers would take over technical applications developed by the R&D pioneers. Patents are important to induce inventors to disclose their techniques for the general welfare, and to promote risk-taking by investors in commercialization of new ideas, in exchange for a twenty year exclusion period. Lesson Four.

As expensive and toxic products, biocides have to be carefully applied. To address this need I worked with Microbics Corporation to develop and commercialize a bacterial bio-luminescence assay and software for residual biocide applied to an industrial process. With this monitoring technique it is possible to see the active biocide dose as a treated bolus moves around the process and fades to non-toxic levels before discharge. This technique was elegant but the luminometers were too expensive to be widely available. Lower cost and easy use are essential. Lesson Five.

Stabilized halogens are important in Nalco's water treatment product line and some anomalous results were seen at higher product doses. I formed a team to define the product dosing more clearly and established boundaries to prevent "overstabilization". More is not always better. Lesson Six.

Intellectual property is critical to support commercialization by providing a limited period of exclusivity. During the life of a patent technical directions may change for the patent-holder in ways that make it financially attractive to offer earlier generations of technology to other firms, or to competitors. Also, maintaining patents is expensive since annual fees are required. I was given the assignment of rationalizing Nalco's patent portfolio, identifying licensing possibilities, and pursuing attractive opportunities. Being a scientist I took an analytical approach, seeking high maintenance fees supporting scant sales. This went well. When I started to identify patents to license that supported more significant products the effort became more complex since license revenues went to a corporate account while sales losses from competitor's use of Nalco IP came from the sales of business divisions. This conflict killed the initiative -- people don't like it when your good idea interferes with their income. Lesson Seven.

Halogens are excellent industrial biocides, cheap and effective, but going out of favor in some parts of the world, especially in the Europe. My last assignment at Nalco was in the lab again, attempting to identify treatment strategies that did not use halogens but which controlled microbes without causing havoc with the other treatment chemistry or the customer's metallurgy. Fulfilling this challenge has now fallen to my protégés. I could do cheap, effective, and safe, but not at the same time. Lesson Eight.

Work only half-days -- 6:30 AM to 6:30 PM. Lesson Nine.

Be flexible, one never knows where the next opportunity will originate. Lesson Ten.

Be fair to everyone, one never knows who will be on your critical path. Lesson Eleven.

With whom did you work, and on what, during your tenure at UT?
I worked with David Gibson, now Professor Emeritus at the University of Iowa, on naphthalene dioxygenase. I also worked with Peter Jurtshuk, now Professor of Microbiology at the University of Houston on respiratory enzymes. I spent most of my graduate days with Professor Orville Wyss, where I studied nitrogenase oxygen protection mechanisms for my dissertation. He was a distinguished faculty member from the era of Norman Hackerman and was president of the American Society for Microbiology.

What are some awards/accomplishments/ activities of which you are most proud?
My UT degrees. My sixteen issued US patents in a wide range of areas including process control, biopolymers for bauxite applications, biofilm monitors, monoclonal antibodies, enzymes for contaminant removal, and halogen application technology. The Nalco Chairman's Achievement award given to the top ten employees each year. And Presidency of the West Chicago Public Library District Board of Trustees for twelve years.

Were there any particular aspects of your time at UT that you believe helped you succeed?
Among the lessons is the importance of getting along with a wide variety of people. This makes is so much easier for each to achieve their goals. Also, a little mercy should temper justice. It helped me.

Do you have any favorite memories of your time with us at UT? (I’m assuming UT is where the two of you met and started dating?)
Meeting and courting Peggy in the halls and labs of the old Experimental Science Building is certainly one. She can tell you more, and probably embarrass me in the process. Playing Austin City League slow pitch softball with the microbiology grad students and professors on "The Experimental Errors."

Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for less-established alumni or students hoping to emulate your success?
For heaven's sake, don't emulate me; follow your own passions in your own way. My passion was always the bacteria and how they made a living. My wife is a wonderful woman, but bacteria are endlessly fascinating. Also, if you work hard and keep your eyes open, luck will find you -- and everyone needs some luck.

Anything else you would like to add?
I was told in business school that the business of a university is to generate successful and generous alumni. For me, this would be modified to include gratitude for the spectrum of lessons learned in my time at UT.

Peggy received a BA in Microbiology in 1970 and BS in Medical Technology in 1971 (in conjunction with Brackenridge hospital), both from UT Austin. She then earned an SBB (Specialist in Blood Banking) from Oschner Hospital in New Orleans from 1975-1977.  After moving to Chicago, she started working at Central DuPage Hospital in 1978 and has been with them, in varying positions, ever since.

What kind of work/research did you do after you left UT?
After I left UT I worked 4 years at St. David’s Hospital, from 1971 until 1975, and I started working in the blood bank there and liked it so much. Now we’re called Clinical Laboratory Scientists, people who get a degree in medical technology now get a degree in Clinical Laboratory Science. Back then, if a med tech went to work somewhere, they could put you wherever they needed one, but if you had a specialty you could usually stay in the department you really liked. I knew we were eventually going to leave Austin and I wanted to specialize in blood banking to help assure that I could stay in that field. Oschner Hospital offered a Specialist in Blood Banking in conjunction with four other hospitals and all the students had classes together. I completed it in 2 years. While I was doing this we had a commuter marriage, Robert was at UT and I was at Oschner working on my specialty, so we would see each other once a month. Actually it kind of spiced up the marriage, we had been married at the time for 4 years.

I came back to Austin and worked at St. David’s again from 77-78. Then we moved to a suburb of Chicago, Naperville, and I worked at a hospital called Central DuPage Hospital. I worked in the blood bank there from 78-79 and then in 79 I became the Technical Director of the North Suburban Blood Center. It was a donor center where people would come and donate blood and the blood was processed. You do Hepatitis testing, HIV testing, antibody screens on the donors, you do types and Rhs, you do a variety of tests. As Technical Director I was over all areas of that blood donor lab, including education of other hospitals that were in our blood system. It was a very interesting job and I held that job until the end of 1980.

At that time my kidneys were falling and in 1981 I went into kidney failure and started kidney dialysis. In March of 1982 I had a kidney transplant. One of my brothers, I have 4 brothers, donated a kidney to me and then in May of 1982 I went back to work at Central DuPage. Just started part time and gradually worked up and eventually became blood bank supervisor. I still work there, now I’m on part-time reserve. I held various positions - I was supervisor for a while. And then in 1992 I had to have another kidney transplant - another brother donated a kidney. After I came back I just worked in the blood bank as a regular medical technologist. I eventually started teaching nurses at Central DuPage, teaching them all the aspects of blood banking. Now I was back at a hospital working which is really what I love to do and I also love to teach. I’m a diabetic and a kidney transplant and my eyesight became so impaired that in 1998 I had to stop doing the actual blood banking tests. I still worked at Central DuPage, but I focused mainly on teaching and I did that until about 2003 and then I took over as coordinator for our annual blood drives at the hospital, we have four a year.

As far as my blood banking career, it’s been very, very rewarding for me. Especially because there are different areas of blood banking that you can do, different areas of medical technology that you can do. If you have certain limitations, like say your eyesight, you can still teach, you can aid other departments in your knowledge. It’s really very rewarding and it has been for me.

What are some awards/activities/ accomplishments of which you are most proud?
I am most proud of all my degrees from the University. I am also very proud of going to get my specialty in blood banking, especially since it involved leaving my job and my home in Austin and going to New Orleans for two years. After that I am really proud of my persistence in the blood bank field and in working over a period of years in which I have had my kidneys fail twice and I’ve had an automobile accident in which my car flipped over four times and I landed upside down and the top of the car was crushed down unbelievably and I survived that with just a cut on my finger.

Were there any particular aspects of your time at UT that you believe helped you succeed?
I had wonderful teachers. The one that sticks out was actually not a microbiology teacher, but he was my biology teacher. His name was Dr. Irwin Spear. He inspired us. He was a very difficult teacher, but he made it very easy to have appointments with him to discuss anything we didn’t understand. And his exams, I think it was the first time that I was taking exams where you had to really think, you didn’t just regurgitate information. You had to think to get to the answer and he started that process. He was followed by many other professors as I progressed in my microbiology studies, but he paved the way. I had a very good friend that was also in his class and I remember getting together after his exams and we would go over and talk about them and they were just so challenging, but at the same time not imposing. I had a negative experience with a chemistry professor, I had to retake one of the quarters of chemistry with a different professor, I was able to get through it and understand it, but it was very difficult with him. Dr. Spear was so challenging and yet so stimulating and started many of us on the right road to how to study, how to prepare for exams, and how to appreciate what we were learning. That’s why I stuck with medical technology, with organic chem. I had some problems and if it hadn’t been for Dr. Spear and for my dad giving me the advice “ah if you flunk it just take it again, you’ll pass it”… That worked for me.

Are there any memories that stick out of your time at UT?
I loved every semester that I had at UT and the reason is that every semester was different. They were all wonderful experiences, good learning experiences, sometimes harder than others, but always the teachers were there to talk to if you needed guidance about what to do or where to go, they were always very helpful.

My main experience was that I met Bob in our senior year. He was a grader in a public health course that I was taking for my microbiology degree. He probably won’t appreciate this. It was a public health course in basic immunology and we were learning – it was almost like CSI in the early days – we were learning how to analyze bloodstains and how to differentiate if they were human or animal and doing work that they probably wouldn’t allow students to do now. Bob was our grader and we were learning how to use autoclaves and were wrapping up petri dishes in brown paper and string and we were going to take them to the autoclave to sterilize them. Bob came up to me as I was wrapping up these petri dishes – I had seen him walking down the hall and coveted him a little bit from behind, but I had never spoken to him - he came up to me and his first words to me were, “About to get things wrapped up?” Two weeks later he asked me to marry him. So, our romance went fast on campus.

And I forgot to tell you one other episode. I was on campus for freshman orientation in 1966 in August and I was coming out of the Architecture building and Whitman opened fire on people and hit a young boy that was on a bicycle right beside me! It was an experience. We were herded around and hid behind bushes up against the Union building for the entire ordeal. While he was shooting I saw the woman that was pregnant get shot on Guadalupe and then we heard shots on the ground and thought that he had come down from the tower and didn’t know what was going on without the day of cellphones. During that 3 hour period I wrote postcards, I had just bought postcards and was going to tell my friends about what was going on at my orientation and I consequently wrote about that. It was another memorable experience. Terrifying is an understatement, especially because some older students who had been helping us younger students, they dragged the boy that had been hit back with us until an ambulance came and took him away. It was terrifying, but even more so for our parents who didn’t know any details and there was no communication until it was over. Bob and I were on campus in October of this year and I had never been to the top of the tower and we went to the top and it was an amazing experience. Very surreal. I tell you those guys who take you up there are wonderful, comforting, and informative and it wasn’t an unpleasant experience at all. Just to see from Whitman’s perspective– having been on one end, seeing it from his end, it was unbelievable.

Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for less-established alumni or students hoping to emulate your success?
Don’t give up. You aren’t necessarily going to know by taking one course for a certain career, what that career is going to be like, so keep pursuing it. And if need be, talk to – and I would give this advice to the professors at UT, have people in that career who come and speak to the students and give them ideas about what it’s really like. My freshman year, there was a required course and we went to the state lab in Austin and observed other medical technologists and I consequently changed my major with what I saw. It’s important to delve into it more than a one-time observation, because that’s not necessarily what you’ll be doing and that doesn’t encompass everything that career can provide for you. Don’t judge a book until you’ve researched it pretty thoroughly.

Anything else you would like to add?
I’m really proud that I’m a graduate of the University of Texas and it has greatly enriched my life to have attended there.

If you would like to contact the Wetegroves, you can do so at




Posted by Steve Franklin


Bio Sci students