Biology Professor Duncan MacKenzie ‘71 Talks Sea Turtles, Fish, and Going With the Flow

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This is the twentieth article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.

MacKenzie in action working on a fish.

“Being a university professor means going where the interesting questions take you. I never thought I would be working with the animals I’m working with now—fish are just fascinating,” said Duncan MacKenzie, an Associate Professor of Biology at Texas A&M University. MacKenzie’s love for science has carried him from setting up lab materials as a TA for M-A Chemistry teacher Robert Condon to earning a PhD in zoology from UC Berkeley, exploring fish reproduction in a lab in Alberta, Canada, mentoring PhD candidates and undergraduate researchers, teaching lecture courses, and studying sea turtle physiology in his own lab at Texas A&M.

MacKenzie’s photo in the 1970 M-A yearbook.

“I have a long history at M-A,” MacKenzie said. “My older brothers went there before me and my mother dragged me to their water polo games. Honestly, I had no interest in watching them, but she was dedicated, so I ended up wandering around campus, digging around in the long jump sandpit—you know, just trying to kill time during those games. I knew where all the ice cream machines were. There were ice cream machines in the gym in the 1960s. You’d put in your dime next to the little elevator and a delicious ice cream sandwich would pop right up.”

“This picture of the water polo team illustrates how goofy our team was,” MacKenzie said.

When he arrived on campus as a freshman in 1967, MacKenzie already knew his way around M-A thanks to his days as a water polo spectator. He ended up playing on the team himself, but remembered with a laugh, “We had a slow couple of years on the water polo team while I was there. As I reminded my three brothers when they all were inducted into the M-A Athletic Hall of Fame, I played in every one of the water polo games in which we set the school record for consecutive losses. After I left, a couple of all-Americans came in and got the program going again.”

Water polo may not be for everyone, but luckily for the Texas A&M Biology Department and the field of comparative physiology, MacKenzie’s passions lay elsewhere: science, math, writing, and exploring paths by asking questions.

“I made the front page of Bear Tracks one time when I participated in a movie that my Biology lab partner made. The pictures are so dorky,” MacKenzie said.

“I loved my science and math classes at M-A,” MacKenzie said. “I especially enjoyed Stan Ogren’s Biology class and Paul Castoro’s Advanced Biology class, which was kind of a free-for-all class that I took during my senior year. My favorite class was Robert Condon’s Chemistry class because he made science so much fun. I ended up working for Mr. Condon as a student technician during my senior year, so I got to make solutions and set up lab benches.”

“The other classes I remember the most were my humanities classes,” MacKenzie continued. “I was on the AP tracks for both English and French. Those classes exposed me to a lot of literature, giving me a lifelong love of reading, and they forced me to learn how to write well. My teachers were intentionally challenging—they would push us—but it made the classes memorable because you felt like you’d earned what you got out of the experience. I hope this is still the case at M-A.”

“My high school years—the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—were a time of transition and social change,” he added. “I remember wearing corduroy jackets, and if you look through the yearbooks, my hair gets progressively longer as you go from ‘67 to ‘71—it’s pretty poor-looking by the end. There was a lot of concern over the Vietnam War, and there was a lot of racial tension on campus. Three weeks after I showed up for my freshman year, the campus was closed because of the riots. We had police on campus, which was unusual and unexpected. We made it through in one piece, but we were all affected by those events.”

Read: Menlo-Atherton’s Race Riots

After M-A, MacKenzie attended UC Davis for his undergraduate degree in Zoology. “Davis was a great experience—definitely the right place for me. It was far enough away from home that I felt like I was independent, and the biological sciences program was outstanding,” he said. “I took classes heavy with lab work, from fossils to live animals, which has impacted the way I teach zoology. And I took a year abroad in Scotland through the UC Education Abroad Program, which was enlightening. I’ve encouraged all my students and my own kids to study abroad.”

MacKenzie was then accepted into a Zoology PhD program at UC Berkeley focusing on comparative physiology—working with birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. He explained, “We tried to figure out how hormones produced by the pituitary gland regulate growth and reproduction in a variety of species, which has been the theme of my career since then: looking at the regulation of growth and reproduction and the evolution of hormones.”

Working in the University Honors office, MacKenzie organizes poster sessions for undergraduate researchers.

Through a connection from Berkeley, MacKenzie found out about a fellowship position at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. He spent three years there working on fish reproduction. He said, “In the summer, we’d go out and do fish sampling, and in the winter we would work with goldfish in the lab. Fish are fascinating to a zoologist because they’re so diverse. They have tried just about every possible reproductive strategy. The fish we’ve studied have all kinds of fascinating ways of reproducing. And when you’re interested in evolution, those are the kinds of projects you gravitate toward.”

“Canada was fun, but after a while, I started getting cold,” he continued. “I was born and raised in Menlo Park, so I had a vision of what the weather should be like, and winter temperatures between -20 and -40 degrees Celcius didn’t really fit that vision. In 1983, I was fortunate to be offered a faculty position at Texas A&M.”

A baby sea turtle.

Another deciding factor in MacKenzie’s move to Texas was the opportunity to work with sea turtles. He explained, “I had done a little work on sea turtles in graduate school, and they have been a major part of my research program in Texas. All sea turtle species are threatened or endangered, so we are trying to figure out how we can use physiological information to help restore wild populations.”

MacKenzie inspiring new Honors students.

At Texas A&M, MacKenzie has taught animal physiology, human anatomy and physiology, comparative endocrinology, and, most recently, Honors Introductory Biology. He received Texas A&M’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2019, and in 2022 the Honors Career Impact Award for his contributions to “student success, research compliance, laboratory safety, curriculum development, and program assessment.”

MacKenzie discusses future experiments with two of his graduates students in his research lab at Texas A&M.

“The most enjoyable thing has been running a research lab and training students,” he said. “In addition to PhD and MS students I’ve had dozens of undergraduate research students come through my lab and, over time, settle in—they get a desk, bring in their books, start studying in the lab.  It becomes their academic home.  We kept lots of experimental fish which students cared for, so we were there nights and weekends and over holidays. The students who worked in my lab were fantastic at helping out, and having that research experience really transformed their education. It gave them a different perspective on biology because they got to actually do science instead of just listening to us talk about it.”

MacKenzie’s advice to current M-A students: “Life is going to throw a lot of surprises at you. Opportunities will arise unexpectedly, especially while you are young, and you should be prepared to take advantage of them. I took a gamble by going overseas for a year when I was in college. I lucked out when I got into Berkeley, and I happened to find a great postdoctoral position in Alberta. These were windows that opened briefly and I jumped through them. When I was at M-A, I had no idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. You should know that is perfectly acceptable. Whether you’re going to college or whether you’re not, there will be opportunities that come up and you need to be prepared to take them. Just stay open minded, have fun, and, as we say in the fish business, go with the flow. I ended up with a PhD in biology because I had fun in my high school science classes.”

On his favorite books, MacKenzie said, “Most of my reading has been professional reading—going through scientific literature, journals, and especially editing the writing of my students. There is so much scientific information out there now, it’s almost impossible to keep up with. I read literature with a memory of high school English. We read Faulkner in my senior AP English class at M-A and I just didn’t understand it at all. But I’ll tell you, 30 years later, after living in the South—which is actually kind of important for understanding Faulkner—I went back and reread it and said to myself, ‘Wow, this is great! I think the purpose of high school is to expose you to this—not necessarily to make you like it, but to broaden your horizons a bit. I retired this past year, so now I’m going back and looking at some of those books I read in high school. I still love Shakespeare. That started in high school—we read two or three Shakespeare plays every year at M-A. I’ve been rereading a lot of Mark Twain lately which I find very enjoyable. I don’t think I’m gonna go back to The Brothers Karamazov, though—I don’t think anything is gonna save that.”

 

Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them!

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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