A new passion is always around the corner
for Craig Pikaard, and his enthusiastic
pursuit of new passions throughout his
career has made him a leading researcher
in plant epigenetics, an emerging area of
plant molecular genetic research.
Pikaard returned to Indiana this year to
accept an endowed professorship at Indiana
University and joint appointments in the
Department of Biology and new Department
of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry.
Pikaard’s lab studies the ways in which genes
are activated and repressed, using techniques
of genetics, genomics, biochemistry, cell
biology, and molecular biology. This
multidisciplinary approach reflects “the
beauty of biology these days,” he says.
Born in New Jersey and raised mostly in
Pennsylvania, Pikaard chose horticulture
as his undergraduate major at Penn State,
although he also loved English and
biochemistry. At Purdue, courses in the
relatively new field of molecular biology
captivated him. He became especially
interested in research investigating the
molecular biology of gene expression.
After NIH-supported work with Dr.
Ronald H. Reeder at the Fred Hutchinson
Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Pikaard
went to Washington University. There he
spent the next 19 years investigating the
molecular and biochemical nature of the
molecular machines that regulate gene
expression in plants. This led him into the
mainstream of research on gene silencing
by short interfering RNAs—one of the
hottest topics in plant and animal research.
Pikaard thrives both on working with
students and being the student himself.
What most appeals to him is the creative,
hands-on nature of research. “You have two
parallel ideas, and you don’t see the
connection right away,” he explains. “You can
design your own experiment with your own
hands to get to the edge of what we know
and we don’t know. Then you can discuss
these questions with other smart people.”
With more than 95 manuscripts
currently published and nearly $3 million
in extramurally funded research, his return
to Indiana opens a new chapter in an
already-noteworthy research career.
When not in the lab, Pikaard gravitates to
the outdoors. He sails on Lake Monroe and
still enjoys the hiking, cycling, and gardening
that sparked his early interest in horticulture.
“It was an exciting time at Purdue. As one of the first
students in the interdepartmental plant physiology
program, we crossed department boundaries to bring
together people with a common scientific interest.
Young, smart faculty hung out with the graduate
students, and it was a hotbed of ideas.”