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Scientist's Evolution : Biologist Walter Fitch, One of UCI's Newest Stars, Still Looking for Challenges--and Answers

July 20, 1989|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

Who knows why or when a child's mind switches from the more mundane pleasures of youth and fixes on something as weighty as science?

Even as he tries to pinpoint the moment when it happened to him, renowned molecular evolutionist Walter Fitch can only make some educated guesses as he thumbs through the pages of his childhood. He knows that part of the answer is that he was a scrawny kid who realized early on that if he were to leave footprints, they wouldn't be on the athletic field.

Ah, but books. With them, he was as swift as the other kids. With them, his mind raced.

One of them he read as a child was a single-volume encyclopedia. On one page were lots of little drawings.

"Every drawing had a flaw that violated something about nature," Fitch said. "For example, one had a flag and a smokestack beside each other, and the flag was clearly blowing one direction and the smoke was blowing in another direction. You were supposed to figure out what the flaw was. Those just fascinated me, and I remember poring over them, figuring out what was wrong with each of those pictures. And I started asking questions. My mother must have been very patient, answering my questions of 'Why?' "

Young Walter Fitch never really stopped asking why, coming to realize with each passing year the wisdom in the aphorism he heard as a child--namely, that every time a scientist answers a question, he raises 10 more.

He put that bit of truth in his knapsack and has kept it all along the trails of his life--trails that have led him now, at age 60 and the father of three grown children, to a perch among the tall trees that represent the country's leading molecular evolutionists.

These are the scientists still tracking the 3 1/2-billion-year-old evolutionary history of the species. While early evolutionists studied the evolutionary chain largely through fossil remains and by comparing the physiology of species, molecular evolutionists study it under a microscope, examining similarities and differences in species' molecular compositions.

Now a professor at the University of Southern California, Fitch will join UCI's department of ecology and evolutionary biology around Oct. 1 at an annual salary of $93,000.

A member of the prestigious National Academy of Science, Fitch would add weight to a UCI department that already includes nationally respected population geneticist Francisco Ayala, himself a member of the NAS's hierarchy.

Fitch's move down the San Diego Freeway to Irvine will come after only three years at USC, a tenure that followed nearly a quarter-century at the University of Wisconsin, where he began his academic career as an assistant professor.

Fitch has become a hot property in a field of science where the final answers lie not around the corner but most likely into the next century and beyond. Prestige and money are to be had for the people who know how to get those answers.

At Wisconsin, they didn't need the chemistry building to fall on them to see it coming. Ultimately, said Harry Karavolas, the chairman of the physiological chemistry department where Fitch built his reputation, the school couldn't afford him.

"Walter started to develop into an international scientist, and the campus has got limited resources here," Karavolas said. "The last few years was when he really grew, and at that time he was looking for bigger and better things. Those bigger and better things were not available here on campus. Our highest-paid professors, and some are Nobel Prize winners, didn't get the money he got at USC." Karavolas said Fitch doubled his Madison salary when he moved to Los Angeles. Fitch said only that USC made him an offer he "couldn't refuse."

But Fitch left on a wave of good will. He is remembered in Madison as a quick-witted, unassuming professor who "represented the Wisconsin idea, where professors don't wear their epaulets on their shoulders," Karavolas said.

And while Fitch said he now envisions retiring at UCI (just as he had once expected to retire at USC), Karavolas isn't so sure. "He's now in that group of scientists who basically aren't attached to any university. They go from place to place representing a group that's pursuing a particular area of science that knows no bounds."

Indeed, Karavolas humorously suggested, one of the most important things a prospective employer can offer scientists of Fitch's caliber is "access to a good airport."

Leaning back in his chair in his rather spare laboratory/office at USC, Fitch is not overdressed for a scheduled interview. He is wearing a pullover shirt, shorts and tennis shoes and is munching on an apple. In the background, classical music plays low on a portable radio that sits under bookshelves with tomes on genetics and molecular biology. All in all, quite a snapshot of the Scholar As Everyman With Classical Tastes.

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