A new chapter begins
On the brink of retirement, scientist Richard Condit reflects on his 25 years at UF and what comes next.
By Doug Bennett
After a storied career in virology, Richard Condit, Ph.D., is surrounded by the trappings of accomplishments.
Scientists around the world know his groundbreaking work with the vaccinia virus. Distinguished teacher awards fill the corner of an office wall. He’s authored a chapter in the preeminent virology textbook. His boss calls him an institution.
Condit, a professor in the College of Medicine department of molecular genetics and microbiology, retires on June 30. Ask about his legacy after 25 years at UF and Condit skips over the scientific accomplishments and long-running grants.
Instead, he mentions his years serving on the committee that selects medical students.
“It’s an important task. You know you’re doing something worthwhile,” he said. “The candidates are so accomplished, so smart and so energetic.”
Then, Condit cites his work with a colleague that brought a unified graduate program to the College of Medicine. Starting the Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Sciences in the mid-1990s gave students more exposure to the breadth of biomedical science, he said. It also strengthened the curriculum by allowing the entire faculty to have input on what graduate students need to know, he added.
To those who know him, it’s classic Condit: an accomplished teacher who is equally enthusiastic about mentoring students, doing world-class research and improving the UF community. Whether it’s collegial conversation in the department or sharing scientific material with a researcher at another university, Condit gives freely of his expertise.
Each day, his office had an open door and a pot of coffee. Colleagues dropped by for casual, wide-ranging discussions. Great science came out of those meetings, Condit said, as did deep and lasting bonds.
That Condit would reflect on his career and talk so much about helping others is typical, colleagues said. Condit is “irreplaceable,” a superb researcher who also gets extremely high marks on student evaluations, said Henry Baker, Ph.D., chair of the department of molecular genetics and microbiology.
“What makes Rich stand out is he’s not a prima donna. He’s never too busy if you go to him with something important. He has a profound sense of duty,” Baker said.
Condit’s former students are just as effusive. Jody Thompson, Ph.D., said Condit inspired him to get an advanced degree.
“His true gift is the fact that he derives more satisfaction from the successes of those around him than he does from his own successes, which are voluminous and impressive,” said Thompson, a senior clinical consultant for Biosurgical Solutions in Gainesville who studied under Condit as an undergraduate from 1998 to 2000.
But Condit did more than challenge and invigorate students. He invited them into his home and infused his lab with a sense of family.
“It is abundantly clear to me that he never viewed students as a resource to be used but as an investment to be made,” says Don Latner, Ph.D., now a microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Likewise, scientists who study certain viruses are indebted to Condit. Early in his career, he generated mutant versions of the vaccinia virus. His collection of mutant viruses put an “on-off” switch on many of the genes that are important for virus replication, allowing other scientists to learn much more about how the virus reproduces and transcribes its genetic information. Vaccinia is now used to produce recombinant vaccines for diseases such as rabies and is being investigated for treatment of cancer, but is best known as the live virus used in the smallpox vaccine.
Condit shared his mutant viruses with any researcher who asked, said Ed Niles, Ph.D., a longtime friend and retired microbiology professor who worked with Condit at the State University of New York at Buffalo for a dozen years beginning in the late 1970s.
“His work has substantially impacted everyone in our age group who investigated the vaccinia virus,” Niles said.
Condit, 66, also prides himself on having a full life outside the laboratory. A role in a local theater’s musical led him to join the Gainesville Barbergators, an a capella group that sings at local venues and events. He’s also involved with This Week In Virology, a podcast about viruses’ effect on the world.
In retirement, Condit wants to golf more and sail. He’s planning a long road trip with his wife, Ibby, to visit their three children and seven grandchildren around the country. Along the way, he’ll visit national parks and stop at Buddhist monasteries. Condit has spent 15 years practicing the ancient self-awareness technique of Vipassana meditation, a way of rounding out a life spent with the rationality of science.
“For a lot of people, science solves everything but for me, it’s only half of what’s going on. The meditation and mindfulness discipline is an exploration of that other side of life,” he said.
Before leaving campus, Condit has some unfinished business. There’s a parting gift for a collaborator at SUNY Buffalo: a big batch of infected cells to help carry on research work. He’s also offered his time to the College of Medicine’s admissions committee yet again.
“I told them to put me on call in retirement. That would be a great way to stay connected,” he said.