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Biology Prof. Lue, Visionary in Life Sciences Pedagogy, Dies at 56

By Zorigoo Tugsbayar
By Meera S. Nair, Crimson Staff Writer

In the sixteen years Gregory A. Llacer worked alongside Robert A. Lue, Llacer never knew Lue to be anything less than “an indefatigable advocate for science education,” “a blue-sky thinker,” and “a tireless humanist.”

“Rob was one of the first Harvard faculty members I got to know,” Llacer wrote in a Nov. 12 email to his staff at the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, which he directs. “Even in the throes of declining health due to cancer he was fighting throughout the summer, we still were working on ideas and projects, collaborations I intend to see through.”

Lue, an innovator in life sciences education, died on Nov. 11 at 56 of a fast-moving cancer.

Lue’s footprint at Harvard stretches wide. In addition to his role as a Molecular and Cellular Biology professor of practice, he served as founding faculty director of Harvard’s online education platform, HarvardX; the first faculty director of the Harvard Ed Portal, a educational program for Allston and Brighton residents; faculty director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning; UNESCO Chair on Life Sciences and Social Innovation; and faculty director and principal investigator of LabXchange, an online science education platform.

Faculty and administrators from across the University said Lue left an indelible mark wherever he went. He fought relentlessly to ensure that all students could access a high-quality education, whether they were at Harvard or not. He saw no limits to where a Harvard education should — and could — be accessed.

A Natural Problem Solver

Lue, born in 1964, grew up in Jamaica and graduated from St. George’s College in Kingston in 1982. He then attended the College of the Holy Cross, graduating with a degree in biology and philosophy in 1986. After his undergraduate years, Lue spent a year at Brandeis University to focus on painting. He finally found his way to Harvard for a Ph.D. in MCB in the lab of Daniel Branton.

Branton, now an emeritus faculty member in MCB, said he saw a glimpse of Lue’s future in teaching during his early years at Harvard as he assisted Branton in cell biology courses.

“He really got more interested in teaching, as time went on, than in detailed lab benchwork,” Branton said, noting that Lue always received “the highest marks of any of the teaching fellows.”

In addition to sparking an interest in teaching, Branton’s lab also connected Lue to his partner for the next 30 years, Alain Viel, now a senior lecturer in MCB and director of Northwest Labs.

Within four years of receiving his Ph.D., Lue became an MCB faculty member at Harvard, where he quickly made a mark on students.

Juliet R. Girard ’07, one of Lue’s students and advisees, said Lue helped her obtain a new computer her freshman year when her old laptop from high school broke down and she could not afford to purchase a new one.

“He was so shocked at first, ‘Oh, you don’t have a computer? You should have told me!’” Girard said. “He wasn’t shocked as to how I could not have a computer, but more so he was sorry that I had this problem and he hadn’t known to fix it.”

Within a week, Lue had secured the funding for Girard’s new computer.

“He was not just the person who talked about wanting to help people, but he actually did help students who didn’t have people supporting them,” Girard said. “He just fixed the problem, and I had never had someone who had immediately recognized what I was going through and immediately wanted to help and made it happen so fast.”

'He Was Always Offering Solutions'

Lue’s undergraduates said they quickly picked up on his compassion for students and resourcefulness to ensure students received a high-quality education, regardless of their circumstances.

Suuba M. Demby ’22 and Sophia E. Swartz ’22, two students who took Molecular and Cellular Biology 64: “Cell Biology in the World” with Lue in the spring, both said Lue seamlessly navigated the switch to online instruction when classes went remote due to the coronavirus pandemic mid-March.

“When people were speculating whether we were going remote or not, he was always offering solutions and comfort to students who were apprehensive about what was to come,” Demby said. “And once the course transitioned online, I was amazed at how well the course was structured, such as with incorporating LabXchange — it was perhaps one of the best-adapted courses last spring.”

Swartz added that Lue integrated storytelling into his teaching, such as narratives from HIV patients, to help students recognize the societal impact of science on individuals who may not have been able to access the science themselves.

“He was focusing not just on educating students, but on how to train future doctors and researchers to do science to improve the human condition and minimize human suffering,” Swartz said.

The impacts of Lue’s teaching extended beyond his students, also shaping the work of his fellow faculty members. Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Chair Elena M. Kramer said Lue opened her eyes to how to become “a much more intentional educator, instead of working on instincts.”

“Like much of the faculty of my generation, I did not receive any formal training in pedagogy,” Kramer said. “They just threw us into the classroom and expected us to figure it out, so Rob really showed me how to be much more conscious about what I did in teaching.”

Bok Center Executive Director Tamara J. Brenner wrote in an email that Lue “dramatically expanded the breadth and scope of the Bok Center’s work,” leading to hundreds of faculty and more than 1,000 undergraduate students engaging with the center annually to improve course design and pursue novel modes of learning.

“Rob believed in the power of an intergenerational community, where faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates work together as partners, sharing their perspectives to improve education,” Brenner wrote.

Living in Color

In addition to his scientific and pedagogical pursuits, Lue was particularly fond of art.

The passion was combined with his eye for innovative science education when he and Viel developed “The Inner Life of the Cell” in 2006. Viewed by millions of students worldwide, the animated video depicts the biological processes within a white blood cell responding to inflammation in the body. It was the first of many multimedia projects undertaken by Lue as part of the BioVisions initiative he founded at Harvard.

Viel said that while he and Lue would often work on projects together at Harvard, whether with BioVisions or the Harvard Summer School, the two would not discuss work at home. They instead turned to subjects of mutual interest, such as art, cinema, and coffee.

“What was compelling was his intellect, and how broad-ranging his interests were,” Viel said. “Back when we were in Dan Branton’s lab, we would talk about a wide range of topics, and that is what really attracted me to him, because I thought it was amazing you could talk to him about anything, and not just why your lab experiments failed or succeeded.”

“He was very information-driven,” Viel added. “For example, when we had our study abroad program in Paris, we would stay in an Airbnb, and he would know which part of Paris he wanted to stay and he would do a full analysis of all the possible Airbnbs that are available before making a decision where to stay.”

Jonathan R. Hamilton ’20, who attended the study abroad program in Paris, called “The Biopolis,” said Lue’s Airbnb was always filled with vibrant colors — which Lue had an affinity for.

“Even his outfits were really colorful,” Hamilton said. “I remember this one outfit he had was a pair of lighter-blue pants and these big bulky sneakers with a green and yellow jacket and a baseball hat.”

The brightness and energy extended to his teaching style, which always captured his students’ attention, said MCB Professor Richard M. Losick. Together, he and Lue pioneered Life Sciences 1A: “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences: Chemistry, Molecular Biology, and Cellular Biology,” the first course of its kind at Harvard to integrate biology and chemistry for first-year students. The two co-taught the course for several years.

“To witness him lecture to the class was something to behold,” Losick said. “He had this engaging voice, it was almost operatic. When students went into the classroom, he would show videos from movies, like Star Wars, and then all of a sudden there would be this big explosion and he would say ‘Welcome to LS1a.’”

“When Rob lectured, you could hear a pin drop as he enthralled the freshmen with his ability to engage them in the topic of the day; they hung on his every word,” Losick added.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

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