James Rosser Photos by Nick Onken
The Professor You’ll Never Forget
Seattle Pacific University professors are open and willing to mentor students — and once student take advantage of this opportunity, their lives are never the same.

Seattle Pacific University professors are great scholars and teachers, and they’re also the kind of people who might linger with you over a cup of coffee at Pura Vida or pray for you when your world is falling apart. And one of them might just become that special mentor who will help you catch a vision for your life.

We’ve chronicled the student-professor partnerships of three SPU grads and their mentors, but trust us, these relationships aren’t unique. When you visit campus, ask students about their professors, and if you enroll at SPU, take your professors up on the gift of mentorship.

Breaking Genetic Ground

James Rosser was used to the glow of lamplight in Tiffany Loop and the frustration of trying to make thousands of mutant bacteria to no avail. It had been five months of slicing DNA with enzymes in order to analyze the entire genome of Azotobacter vinelandii strain DJ, a nitrogen-fixing bacterium. The experiments weren’t working, but the anticipation of discovering something new kept the 2008 graduate Rosser coming to the lab 50 hours a week and reading everything he could on the bacteria.

“Dr. Wood is the best thing that happened to me at SPU. He put a lot of faith in me, and that made the difference.”
—Recent graduate James Rosser

And then, around 9 o’clock on another Saturday night alone in the lab, Rosser finally produced the DNA fragments he needed. Grabbing his phone, Rosser immediately dialed his mentor, Assistant Professor of Biology Derek Wood, and blurted out, “I got it! I got it to work!”

“Outstanding work; this will really move your project forward!” Wood said, one of his common encouragements.

The next day, from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., Rosser made about 1,000 mutants, just a portion of the 8,000 mutants he would eventually make. Rosser and Wood wanted to use the mutants to identify all of the genes required to survive on nitrogen, which had never been done — until now.

An advocate for undergraduate research, Wood encouraged his student to publish his results and always made time to celebrate with Rosser and answer questions. “Some researchers believe that undergraduates can’t do this type of work,” Wood says. “But
I know they can.”

Wood and Rosser, a senior at the time, both travelled east from Seattle Pacific University to Washington, D.C., last spring to present the research to politicians on Capitol Hill. Now Rosser is working on publishing two papers — one of his own and one with scientists from Europe, Mexico, and the United States. He’s also attending graduate school at Washington State University to earn a doctorate from the School of Molecular Biosciences.

And once again, he spends time in the lab doing his favorite thing: research. When he has questions, he still goes to his mentor, who’s now more than five hours away from Rosser’s new home in Pullman, Washington. This time, the pair communicates either by Skype or Facebook. “I’m trying to find another professor to research with,” Rosser says. “It’s going to be hard to find someone with the same care and coolness as Dr. Wood.”

By Julia Siemens, Photos By Nick Onken
Read other Feature Stories about SPU students and alums.