University of Missouri School of Medicine MU Health School of Medicine

Sept. 14, 2015

Bill Folk

Bill Folk has devoted a large portion of his recent research into exploring the possible benefits of indigenous botanicals, such as Sutherlandia (pictured).

(Un)common Folk

Biochemistry stalwart prepares to share his story for Corps of Discovery Lecture

By Stephen Schmidt

Who is Bill Folk? That depends on whom you ask.

To members of the University of Missouri community, he may be the guy with the long stride and his nose to the ground in spite of his tall and slender frame, rolling with a purposeful stride as he crosses campus lost in thought. “It is hard to crack his train of thought sometimes and people will go ‘Hey we waved at Dr. Folk, but he didn’t see us,’” says his youngest daughter, Torrey Palmer.

To the scientific and medical communities at MU and beyond, he’s the epitome of a collaborator. He is a professor of biochemistry, jointly appointed to the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the School of Medicine, with an adjunct appointment in the Masters of Public Health Program. Since arriving at MU in 1989 has served as a catalyst for a number of studies and international efforts that bridge modern and traditional medicines. These efforts are highlighted by work conducted in South Africa with a plant known as Sutherlandia and its possible abilities to combat or stifle HIV and AIDS.

To Dennis Lubahn, he’s the man with “Wyatt Earp eyes” who hired him in 1994 when Folk served as the head of CAFNR’s biochemistry division from 1989 to 2000. “You would never want to stare him down,” Lubahn warns. At the same time, Lubahn says his former boss has the self-assured confidence and benevolence of Santa Claus (minus the big belly). “You talk to him. You calm down. You feel better,” he adds.

To his wife and two daughters, he’s the husband and father whose sense of discovery and tireless work ethic has never waned in the nearly 50 years that he’s been married to his wife, Martha. “He’s just really open to new ideas, new challenges,” she says. “Any time he can learn something new, he’s excited.”

To his four grandchildren, he’s “Unga,” a name that stuck after the eldest tried to pronounce “grandfather” for the first time.

Who is Bill Folk? It takes all of these replies to answer that question, simply because Folk is as fond of talking about himself as he is sitting indoors and twiddling his thumbs on a beautiful Saturday.

Telling Folk-tales

This Thursday (Sept. 17) though, Folk will not be allowed to change the subject or shift the spotlight as he gives this year’s 21st Century Corps of Discovery Lecture, “Clash of Cultures on the Medical Frontier,” at 4 p.m. in Memorial Union North’s Stotler Lounge.

When he gives the lecture, he will be just the third member of the CAFNR community to do so, joining Randy Prather (2007) and Jerry Taylor (2013) from the Division of Animal Sciences. He will be second representative from the School of Medicine, following Carol Ward (2011) from the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences.

Lubahn, a professor of biochemistry and director the MU Center for Botanical Interaction Studies, helped orchestrate the nomination process five months ago. “He could keep a lot of balls in the air at the same time. It was pretty amazing,” Lubahn says. “I do not have higher respect for anyone on campus.” Ten letters poured in from various locations, including one from the rector of the University of Western Cape in South Africa.

Bill Folk poses with a quilt

Bill Folk poses with a quilt that was made by a South African artist. The quilt displays the cultivation of indigenous medicinal plants and crops.

Gerald Hazelbauer, who succeeded Bill as biochemistry department chair in 2000, says that there are few scientists with Bill’s sustained breadth of professional interests. “To be successful in so many different academic and scholarly pursuits requires prodigious discipline,” Hazelbauer says. “I observe such discipline most days as Bill walks past my home on his way to or from his laboratory, departing before I do and returning after I am already home.”

On the heels of the most recent academic paper (published on July 17 in the Public Library of Science) concerning the clinical trials of Sutherlandia conducted at Edendale Hospital in South Africa, Folk has just returned from a lengthy trip to Asia in which he described possible harms that can come with mixing traditional and western medicines — in particular, that they may cause an increased risk of tuberculosis through a weakening of a prophylactic treatment that is used worldwide.

In preparation for his talk, Folk has done research on the namesake of the lecture series: the Corps of Discovery, a specialized unit of the U.S. Army who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their famed westward expedition from 1804 to 1806. As someone who is no stranger to delving into different cultures, Folk can empathize with Lewis and Clark and company.

He was saddened, though, to learn how the Native American traditions and culture — and its medicinal treatments — have been lost. It is a sentiment that has influenced Folk since he made his initial trip to South Africa in 2004 to work with medical colleagues and traditional healers, especially those from the KwaZulu-Natal province. The different world views of various people he has worked with have also shaped his appreciation for collaborative learning and diverse perspectives in the classroom.

“One of the things that I have learned from my experience working with my colleagues in Africa is how important intercultural communication is, and that certainly will be one of the things that I reflect upon," says Folk, whose work in South Africa has also paved the way over the years for several medical and law students to experience their professions in very different environments than in Columbia. "This has been a personal voyage of discovery, in which I've moved from being a stalwart believer that molecular science could address many of societies’ problems to being less assured it’s that simple."

Still he can appreciate the tremendous risks taken Corps of Discovery.

“One of the exciting aspects of risks is not knowing what you’re going to discover and that is why I and others love doing science — we don’t know what we’re going to find out,” Folk says, “and when we do find out something that we didn’t anticipate, it's an experience that cannot be understated.”

And so he continues to look for ways to discover new possible benefits from traditional healing plants by joining forces with researchers in the U.S. and overseas while also developing new courses and methods of teaching.

“We say in our family that he wants to save the world and so he’s really trying to do things that are helpful for humanity. He’s looking at the big picture. If I looked at the big picture all the time, I would get depressed, but he doesn’t seem to get that way,” says Jenn Muno, his oldest daughter.

“His love for making a difference in the world has had a tremendous impact,” Torrey adds. “If he can see the smallest door, he will build a path brick-by-brick himself and shepherd all of us through.”

Bill Folk lecturing

Bill Folk gives a lecture about the use of traditional medicines for health care this past July at the Bond Life Sciences Center. A Sutherlandia plant from his own garden is to his left. Photo by Stephen Schmidt.

Grab your passports

To know Bill Folk’s story is to know as a man who was born as a curious traveler. Where did he grow up? “All over the world, actually.” That’s what happens when your father works as an independent geologist. After being born in 1944 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Folk’s family moved to Fairbanks — well before Alaska achieved statehood — and then to Mexico City and Sicily, Italy, before settling in Houston. “I’m fascinated by different cultures and experiences abroad,” he says.

Folk passed that love of exploration onto his children. Ask his two daughters about their childhood and before long they’ll talk about the time as elementary school students that their dad moved them to Zurich, Switzerland, in 1981 for a school year while he was on sabbatical leave from the University of Michigan, at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biophysics, ETH. After a month of learning German as a family, Torrey and Jenn enrolled in a Swiss school where most students spoke German.

“He was so intentional and thoughtful in creating this whole experience that would shape who we were from that point going forward,” says Palmer, a resident of Reno, Nevada, who followed her father’s footsteps in education by working as a teacher and is now helping teachers improve their practice for The New Teacher Project. “He created opportunities for my sister and me to ensure that we were exposed to a wide range of experiences, so we basically felt like we could pursue whatever interested us as long as it was sustainable and that we were making a positive difference either in a very small scope or in a broader scope.”

Through her involvement with the U.S. Rowing team, Palmer was able to continue travelling globally, with a journey that culminated at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, as a member of the women’s coxed eight team.

He also taught his daughters the value of establishing roots, watering them with hard work, love, patience and devotion — and seeing what grows. Out of all the places that Folk has lived in or traveled, his favorite place is one reached by a brisk walk from his laboratory. “It’s actually here,” he says. “I really love Columbia. It’s such an interesting mix of culture and history… I’ve been here in Columbia longer than anywhere else.”

Unlike Torrey, who attended Hickman High School, Jenn did not live in the area as a student, but she always enjoyed her time in town when she would visit while attending Rice University. After graduation and working on farms throughout the country in apprentice roles, Jenn and her future husband, Ken, knew exactly where they wanted to start their own goat cheese farm in 2001.

They just needed some help from Martha and Bill. The four would jointly buy the 80 acres near Harrisburg, Mo., that would become Goatsbeard Farm. With the help of approximately 70 goats, Jenn and Ken’s business has grown into a favorite destination of passers-by at the Columbia Farmers Market. “They believed in our crazy idea,” Jenn says. “Mom and Dad, said, ‘Yes, let’s help you do this now when you’re young and full of energy.’ I just found that amazing.”

“I think he’d say he’s a learned a lot from both of those girls and the lives that they’ve lead. It’s opened him up to new ideas,” Martha Folk adds.

Martha Folk, and her oldest daughter, Jenn Muno

Martha Folk and her oldest daughter, Jenn Muno, strike a pose next to their Goatsbeard Farm display at the Columbia Farmers Market. Photo by Stephen Schmidt.

Planting seedlings

Martha has a hard time believing that it has been nearly 50 years since she married Bill in June of 1966 after the two met as students at Rice, when he was a junior and she was a freshman from Houston. She would transfer to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where Bill pursued his Ph.D. under the tutelage of renowned biochemist Paul Berg, who would go onto win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1980.

Their journey then led to post-doctoral work in London, followed by an 11-year stay the University of Michigan and then four years at The University of Texas at Austin before moving to Columbia in 1989 to take the role of biochemistry professor and department chair at MU. “I was pretty hesitant coming here, just not knowing much about it,” Martha admits. “But it has turned out to be for both of us, a really wonderful place to live.”

There’s a good chance on weekends that Bill can be found working on a plot of land not far Goatsbeard Farm that was rundown and overgrazed, when the Folks bought it at auction. Now, thanks to the thousands of tree seedlings and warm season grasses and forbs that Bill has planted, the farm has sprung to life with biodiversity that attracts insects and wildlife.

“He goes out there and he just works and works and he comes back just uplifted by it, by the flowers that are blooming or the trees that growing or whatever it might be,” Martha says.

Bill Folk fishing

Bill Folk loves doing activities, such as fishing, with his four grandchildren. In this photo, Jayna fishes with Bill while Cyrus jumps in and Peter hangs out in the lake. Photo courtesy of Jenn Muno.

Then there’s the four grandchildren who he would drop everything for to attend one of their recitals or sporting events: Torrey’s two girls, Ella (10) and Jayna (8) and Jenn’s two boys, Peter (14) and Cyrus (6).

“He doesn’t talk about himself, but you can get him to talk about the rest of us, especially the grandchildren,” Martha says.

Want to see him smile? Ask him about the recent time that Cyrus declared his desire to one day become a scientist, after visiting the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit and seeing the inner workings of Thomas Alva Edison’s laboratory.

“It kind of changes from day to day, but scientist/inventor I think was what he was telling my dad and my dad was bursting at the seams with excitement,” Muno says.

“He’s the first grandchild to express that interest,” Martha adds. “Of course, Bill’s eyes lit up.”

Another sprout had formed.

This story was originally published on CAFNR News.

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