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Suppose you own racing pigeons and want to learn if a
particular bird has a mutation that might make it speedier in lucrative
competitions. Or you’re a sheep rancher whose livelihood depends on knowing
which of your animals are genetically susceptible to a deadly disease.
For answers, you could turn to UD alumnus Robert Wagner Jr.,
Class of 1972, a pioneering DNA scientist with a Harvard Ph.D. and several
patents, whose successful biotechnology firm features a dynamic research
program and develops genetic tests for animals.
Now, suppose you’re a cattle rancher and want to purchase a
bull with an impressive bloodline, or a hard-working border collie, to add to
You could turn to Bob Wagner, who with his wife, Jan, owns
and manages a 6,000-acre cattle and sheep ranch in northern Colorado,
well-known for its annual Wagner Ranch Bull Sale and for the border collies the
couple breeds, raises and trains.
That’s right—the same person.
To Wagner, who has received a 2020 College of Arts and
Sciences Alumni Achievement Award in recognition of his professional
accomplishments and public service, there’s nothing unusual about a life that
combines laboratory science with ranching.
“I’ve always had one foot in two different camps,” he said.
“When I was a [UD] student, I was taking high-end academic classes, but all my
friends were football players. … When I was doing research in a lab in Europe,
I was commuting there from a small farm where I lived in the northeastern
Raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, Wagner came to UD with one
goal: to play football. By his junior year, the defensive tackle had decided he
was “too small and too slow” to continue playing. He threw himself into his
classes as a biological sciences major and, he said, “became enamored of
His success in the classroom and laboratory enabled him to
leave UD in the middle of his senior year and start graduate school at Harvard,
where he worked under Prof. Matthew Meselson, a genetic researcher who made
groundbreaking findings about how DNA replicates and who discovered messenger
RNA. With DNA science still developing, it was an exciting time to work in
molecular biology, said Wagner, who earned his doctorate in 1976.
Also that year, he and Meselson published a paper
characterizing DNA mismatch repair—the process by which DNA is able to correct
most of the random errors that inevitably occur when it is replicating. The
discovery of this mechanism won wide acclaim for Wagner and Meselson, whose
names appear on a Chemical and Engineering News
short list of scientists considered unfairly overlooked in later Nobel Prize
Wagner continued his genetic research, working with Miroslav
Radman, who had also been a member of Meselson’s team at Harvard, in a lab in
Europe. From his small farms in New York state and then in Maine, Wagner flew
to Europe regularly for weeklong stints of research with Radman, often followed
by the publication of a paper.
“We did an incredible body of work” in that collaboration,
Wagner said, and in 1993 they founded Gene Check Inc., a private biotechnology
company, in Colorado. Gene Check used the founders’ DNA research to develop
mutation-detection methods and commercial applications of those methods that
are used by the research community and by sheep breeders and other veterinary
Today, the company does much of its testing on sheep,
primarily to determine if an animal is susceptible or resistant to scrapie, a
deadly prion disease similar to mad cow disease in cattle. The lab, which has
customers worldwide, is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has
been awarded several research grants.
Wagner, who initially planned to become a veterinarian, said
his postgraduate experience living on farms showed him connections between
farmers and researchers.
“Good farmers and ranchers are very much like scientists—but
in a more practical way,” he said. “They observe what works, and they’re
willing to experiment with new things. You can’t really be successful if you
just say, ‘We always did it this way.’”
After moving to Colorado, Wagner met his wife, Jan Gillespie,
an anesthesiologist. Together, they bought land near the Wyoming border, where
they built a house and operate Wagner Ranch in addition to their other careers.
Wagner is president and CEO of Gene Check, where he continues
to conduct research. He said he especially likes training young researchers,
often hiring them directly from their undergraduate studies. He is also
mentoring three UD students, meeting with them remotely and offering them
“They’re all doing extremely well academically, so they
didn’t need help with that,” Wagner said. “Mostly they were just looking for
guidance. … I love teaching young people; I think it goes back to when I
coached [high school] football.”
Wagner said his dual roles as a scientist and a rancher keep
him energized and challenged.
“I like to be consumed by what I do, and I want a variety of
experiences,” he said. “Gene Check doesn’t make a lot of money, but we fill a
need and it’s important to me. I do it because I love the science.”
Article by Ann Manser
Published June 1, 2021
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