Dr. Ronald L. Phillips. Photograph is courtesy of the University of Minnesota.
With great sadness, we report that Dr. Ronald L. Phillips passed away on August 25th, 2023, after a brief bout with an aggressive cancer.
Ron Phillips was born on January 1, 1940, on a farm in Indiana. His parents’ work with a seed corn company sparked his early interest in agriculture, leading eventually to his lifelong mission to improve agricultural production and alleviate hunger.
After earning B.S. and M.S. degrees from Purdue University, a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota with renowned plant cytogeneticist Charles Burnham, and experience in Neurospora genetics as an NIH postdoctoral trainee with Adrian Srb at Cornell, Dr. Phillips joined the faculty of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota. Prior to retiring 42 years later at age 70 as a Regents Professor, he mentored more than 50 graduate students and over 20 postdoctoral scientists. He published over 150 research papers, 70 chapters, 350 abstracts, and 6 edited books. His numerous awards from the University of Minnesota include the McKnight Presidential Chair in Plant Genomics, the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, and the Siehl Prize, an award “recognizing individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the production of food and alleviation of hunger.”
Within SIVB, Dr. Phillips is perhaps best known for the seminal publication with his first postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Ed Green, of the first regeneration of fertile corn plants from cultured cells (Green and Phillips, 1975, Crop Science). This became his most cited publication and provided the foundation for genetic improvement of corn through in vitro selection and genetic transformation. During the 1980s, the research projects of many of his graduate students focused on understanding the basis of somaclonal variation. Key discoveries from this work included tissue culture-induced activation of previously silent transposable elements (Peschke et al., 1987, Science) and tissue culture-induced variation in DNA methylation (Kaeppler and Phillips, 1993, PNAS). While not an active member of SIVB, Dr. Phillips made substantial contributions to the society, including serving as the Keynote Speaker at the 2006 In Vitro Biology meeting in Minneapolis. His students and postdocs have served the SIVB in many capacities, including as SIVB President (David Altman, former postdoc).
Dr. Phillips was a very active member of the Maize Genetics Cooperation community, and he embraced and embodied the philosophy of cooperative, collaborative research. Tools developed as collaborative efforts between his lab and others have been made freely available to help accelerate crop improvement research, including the “Hi-II” germplasm widely used in maize transformation studies, oat–maize addition lines used in a variety of genomic and chromosome research applications, and other key collections that have helped enable dissection of the genetic control of both Mendelian and quantitative traits. In 2021, Dr. Phillips was honored with the R. Emerson Lifetime Maize Genetics Award from the Maize Genetics community.
Dr. Phillips’ additional and substantial research contributions to the fields of genetics and cytogenetics are captured well in a tribute article published at the time of his retirement (Kaeppler et al., 2009, Maydica).
In addition to his numerous research contributions, Dr. Phillips generously served the plant science community. Among his many roles, he served as Chief Scientist of the USDA (1996–1998), including chairing the White House committee that developed the Plant Genome Research Program, and as president of CSSA. He also served on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Danforth Plant Science Center, the Board of Trustees of IRRI (including chair of the Program Committee from 2005–2009), and the Program Advisory Committee of the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia.
Dr. Phillips received many honors in the United States and abroad. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the ASA, CSSA, AAAS, and Noble Foundation. He was a recipient of the Purdue Agriculture Distinguished Alumni Award, the DeKalb Genetics Crop Science Distinguished Career Award, the Medal for Science from the University of Bologna (Italy), and the Wolf Prize in Agriculture. The Wolf Prize was presented by the President of Israel and honors those who have “contributed to society through groundbreaking research for mankind.” It is considered by some to be the “Nobel Prize of Agriculture.” At the request of Dr. Phillips and his wife, Judy, the Wolf Prize award money was donated to the University of Minnesota Foundation to fund scholarships.
The reach and impact of Dr. Phillips’ work was global. He served as a visiting professor in Morocco, Japan, China, Canada, and Italy. He presented invited seminars or served on advisory committees in over 30 countries, including a keynote address at the United Nations in Vienna, Austria. Project AgGrad, initiated by Dr. Phillips and funded by contributions through the United Methodist Church, has enabled students from developing countries to earn graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota and then return to their home countries to conduct research and train others in agricultural production. Dr. Phillips was also an enthusiastic supporter and mentor for international students in the Beachell–Borlaug Program, which has impacted many worldwide.
Despite his many awards and accolades, Dr. Phillips will be best remembered for his personal attributes. He was a selfless and patient supporter of his students. He was outstanding in promoting the people that he mentored. He exemplified the highest standards of integrity and scientific rigor. He valued long-term colleagues. He was a role model for demonstrating that success in your career does not require sacrificing your family.
He will be missed.
For those who may wish to make memorial contributions, please see information about “Project AgGrad” and “The Ron and Judy Phillips Plant Genetics Scholarship Fund” in Dr. Phillips’ obituary at the link below.
Submitted by former students, postdocs, and SIVB friends of Dr. Ron Phillips.
Some information was obtained from Dr. Phillips’ obituary and from an article by M. J. Pehl.