Bob Baker, left, pictured with fellow scientist John Petruska, helped build USC Dornsife’s molecular biology research expertise. (Photo: Courtesy of Candy Yee.)

Pioneering USC Dornsife scientist helped launch molecular biology program

Bob Baker will be honored with a new scholarship in his name thanks in part to USC Dornsife alumnus Dexter Holland, lead vocalist for The Offspring.
ByUSC Dornsife News Staff

Students in the Molecular and Computational Biology program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences may have cause to celebrate, thanks to an early proponent of the program and notable alumnus Dexter Holland, lead vocalist for rock band The Offspring.

Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences Robert Frank “Bob” Baker, who died in 2023, helped establish USC Dornsife’s molecular biology efforts as the field took hold at academic institutions nationwide.

The Professor Bob Baker Memorial Award Established by Dexter Holland will honor a pioneer in molecular biology at USC and support students studying the topic.

Building USC Dornsife’s molecular biology program

Baker joined USC Dornsife in 1968, when the university’s biological sciences program included prominent bacteriologists, biochemists, physiologists, classical evolutionists and environmentalists, but few if any molecular biologists, according to Myron Goodman, professor of molecular biology and chemistry and gerontology at USC Dornsife.

While at the time molecular biology held little traction at USC, Baker changed that, Goodman says. Along with molecular biologist John Petruska, who died in 2019, Baker began working to build the university’s efforts in the field.

Baker’s research focused primarily on sea urchin embryo development, studying the molecules involved. He later expanded his studies to explore unique structural features of DNA. His success in earning National Institutes of Health grant funding and in recruiting and training exceptional graduate students further advanced the molecular biology work at USC Dornsife.

“Bob must be credited as the initial member of our faculty that was responsible for laying the foundation of what was to develop and expand into MCB (molecular and computational biology) and QCB (quantitative and computational biology)” at USC Dornsife, says Goodman.

A positive force for young scientists

Though his research output ebbed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Baker’s influence continued with his attendance and participation at seminars, faculty meetings and section retreats, Goodman says, and he continued to teach and nurture the next generation of scholars.

“He was beloved by the students and taught molecular biology and related topics to hundreds of undergraduate students every year,” Goodman says. “He was generous with his time and praise and recommended countless students for medical and dental schools.” Baker also mentored many PhD students.

“Professor Baker was an inspiring educator, brilliant scientist and a kind-hearted genuine friend,” said Deepak Bhole, who earned a PhD in molecular biology from USC Dornsife in 2002. “Serving as a teaching assistant for his class for many semesters provided me the opportunity to closely observe the hallmarks of a good teacher and strengthened my knowledge of the basics of molecular biology which benefits me in my job even to this day.”

Baker, who retired from USC Dornsife in 2015, was a positive force for junior faculty, as well, Goodman says. “I gratefully recall how Bob and his wife Mary welcomed [my wife] Marion and our two young children as guests in their home during the summer of 1973, as I was about to begin my own journey to USC.”

Rock star alumnus extends professor’s legacy

Earlier this year, USC Dornsife alumnus Holland established a scholarship in Baker’s name. Holland earned three degrees from USC Dornsife: a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 1988, and a master’s degree and PhD in molecular biology in 1990 and 2017, respectively.

“I met Dr. Bob Baker as an undergraduate at USC, and his passion for science was very inspirational to me,” Holland said. “Bob had an amazing ability to communicate the pure possibility that exists in molecular biology, and it was this passion that inspired me to pursue research, and ultimately a doctorate, from USC. He also cared about his students and went the extra mile to share his time with all of us. He was the best, and I am honored to be a part of an award in his name.”

Remo Rohs, founding chair of the Department of Quantitative and Computational Biology at USC Dornsife, who viewed Baker as an undergraduate teaching mentor, said the scholarship will extend Baker’s legacy to future generations of scientists.

“I’m so proud we can honor someone who had such a profound influence on the life sciences at USC,” Rohs said. “The ‘Professor Bob Baker Memorial Award Established by Dexter Holland’ is a wonderful way to ensure Bob’s work continues on, and we’re very grateful to Dexter for launching the scholarship.”

The editors thank Professor Myron Goodman for his extensive contribution to this article.