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RIP Todd Klaenhammer (1951-2021)

 

A Tribute to Todd Klaenhammer (1951-2021) by Colin Hill

A PhD student walks into a bar …..’. Like many an Irish tale that was the start of my story with Todd Klaenhammer. Todd was a rising star in the field of genetics of lactic acid bacteria (LAB). He was a prodigy who started a faculty position in the renowned Food Science Department at NC State University aged 26, straight after his PhD. He was LAB royalty, having done his PhD under the extraordinary Larry McKay, who had done his PhD with the late and great Bill Sandine in Oregon. I unknowingly shared the same scientific bloodlines, since I was finishing my PhD with Charlie Daly in UCC who had studied with Larry in Sandines’ lab. When I met and chatted to Todd at the bar that evening I immediately liked him and there and then he offered me a post-doc at NC State. I often wondered why he did because in truth I was a very average student but I can only assume Charlie was pulling strings. I went home and discussed it with my wife, Dymphna, and we decided to go for it, taking our six-month old son Cian along for the adventure.

Looking back on my subsequent career I appreciate how lucky I was to have gone to the Rob Roy bar that night. Todd was a superb experimental scientist and an inspiration to me. He relished vigorous debate, he indulged my flights of fancy, if he didn’t agree with what I was proposing to do experimentally he would still let me do it, which of course made me even more determined to deliver. In those intense two years I discovered that I really liked science, and a career in research became a possibility. He beat me relentlessly on the squash courts twice a week, happily annihilating me every time. Interestingly once I became a better player and started to win he lost interest – he was a fierce competitor. Todd and Amy became close friends of ours and that friendship lasted for decades. He was even Godfather to our oldest daughter. We had so many great dinners, visits to their cabin by the lake and a memorable stay in Allihies in West Cork, trips to conferences and too many funny stories and adventures to tell here. Oh, and he published hundreds of papers and won lots of awards and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, but I truly don’t care about that. One of my proudest claims in science is that I am a Klaenhammer alumnus, and one of my proudest claims outside of science is that I was Todd’s friend.

Allihies, West Cork, October 1995 (Cian and Daragh went on to do PhD’s in microbiology in APC Microbiome Ireland, so the influence lives on).