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Tom Blumenthal ’66

Interviewed By: 
Christian Feuerstein '94

Tom Blumenthal '66Tom Blumenthal ’66 is the chairman of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.He has studied the mechanisms of gene expression and how genes are organized on chromosomes. Recently, he was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. The Academy’s elected members are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs. Blumenthal took time out of his research to talk about being a part of an Antioch College family, how co-op changed his life, and secret painting of the Science Building.

On his current projects: After Antioch, I did a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins and then went to J.D. Watson's lab at Harvard to do a postdoctoral fellowship. Several former Antiochians had worked in that lab before me, including Joan Steitz and Mario Capecchi, both of whom went on to stellar careers in molecular biology. My first real job was at Indiana University in Bloomington, where I stayed for 23 years, beginning as an assistant professor of microbiology and ending as chairman of biology.

In 1987, I moved to the University of Colorado School of Medicine as chairman of biochemistry and molecular genetics. After living in Denver for about a year and a half, my wife (Betsy Packard Blumenthal '66) and I decided to move to Boulder because she was working here (at Schacht Spindle Co., a maker of weaving equipment). After commuting to Denver for a number of years, I was recruited four years ago to be chairman of molecular cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I currently am. All of this time, I have been running my research lab, studying mechanisms of gene expression and how genes are organized on chromosomes. Based on my lab's research discoveries, I was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences earlier this year. It means my fellow molecular biologists value the contributions my lab has made in understanding basic life processes. Obviously, that is very gratifying.

On the only school he applied to: Antioch was the only school I applied to. Everything about it appealed to me. It was a small, distinguished liberal arts school. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, so I thought it would probably be a very good place to find out. Both Antioch and I were very left leaning. The co-op program sounded wonderful. And in the end, it was the co-op program that led me to where I am today. I came to Antioch planning to major in philosophy or English, but on a co-op job as an orderly at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I became interested in becoming a doctor. So when I returned to campus, I switched to pre-med. That got me into Dr. Stanley Garn's research course, which resulted in my working in his lab at Fels, which led me to switch again, which was the beginning of a lifetime of biological research.I majored in biology, beginning in my third year.

In addition, Antioch was a family school. My father graduated from Antioch, and my sister Elly was already there when I arrived. Later my cousin Barbara Kapp (Schwam) came there too. Both Elly (Gould) and I met our future spouses, to whom we are still married, at Antioch.

What's your favorite memory of being at Antioch? I guess I have two favorites: Folk dancing on red square and getting together with a group of friends to secretly paint the drab gray panels in the science building bright colors one night.

Was there a professor that made a huge impact on your life? There were several. Certainly the top two were Ed Samuels and Stanley Garn. My favorite single course was Constitutional Law, but I can't remember who taught it. I took two quarters of Shakespeare, which were also fabulous.

Any stirring words of wisdom about the independence of Antioch College? Antioch has a long and difficult road ahead if is to succeed in re-establishing itself as an excellent place to go to college. It could easily fail. How do you gradually expand into a self-sufficient college when you are starting with a place that very few people know about, that you have to pay a lot of money to go to, and where it isn't yet clear what the rewards will be? How can Antioch attract and pay a really distinguished group of faculty? How can it attract the brightest students when going there is perceived as a very risky proposition? How can Antioch compete when its physical plant is old and in disrepair? These issues are not insurmountable, but Antioch would be unwise to pretend they don't exist. Given all of these difficulties, perhaps it isn't worth it? But it is! The world is a mess. The resurrection of Antioch is important ... very important.

Antioch can potentially do what no other school can do. It can become again a bastion of radical and creative thinking. It can train people to care about the world and understand they can accomplish a lot by understanding that they can accomplish a lot. If we let the last place like Antioch … die, the world will be a much poorer place. We should not give up.

Why do you donate to Antioch College? Because it is important that this effort not fail. Last year, Betsy and I donated more to Antioch than to all other charities combined. We both feel very strongly that saving Antioch is a unique and potentially significant way we can make a contribution to saving the world from itself.