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Outstanding Alumni Winner - 2008|College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Regina Rooney

Alumna award recipient's work, patents, affect many

By Steven L. Miller, Senior Editor
Office of Communications and Technology

Outstanding College of Agriculture Alumna award winner Regina Rooney has a life of loves:

  • Husband, Richard Ogden,
  • Three children,
  • Two grandchildren,
  • Ballet (yes, ballet),
  • And biochemistry

The Cheyenne native attended college while raising three children, and 18 years after her Ph.D finds herself the cofounder of a consulting company with her husband and able to live wherever she and her husband wish. They chose Moran, with views of the Tetons looming outside their windows.

"I whole-heartedly endorse any effort that would let Regina's compassion for all humans and passion for science shine as a more visible example of the life we should all aspire to," writes Tom Jackson of Jackson Engineering Inc. of San Diego, California, in a nomination letter.

Jackson, a mechanical engineer, and Rooney began working together in 1995. "We combined our two fields of technical background to create some very challenging products in the life science fields involving both DNA and proteomic targets," he continues. "Several patents evolved, and at least four resulting product lines are still on the market today generating jobs and revenue across the country."

Accolades from colleagues run throughout nomination letters for Rooney: outstanding scientist, born leader, high integrity, energy.

"She is among the most successful graduates of the molecular biology program at UW," writes Professor Nancy Peterson, who was her graduate adviser.

Writes Pamela Langer, associate professor in the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture's molecular biology department, "Dr. Regina Rooney is a clear example of someone who has stretched her education in molecular biology from basic research to management of product development in the biotechnology industry."

Rooney grew up in Cheyenne and attended UW knowing she wanted to major in a science area. She dabbled in medical technology and realized she would rather be in micro. She declared microbiology as a major her second year. After three and a half years, with one semester remaining to complete her degree, she decided she wanted to stay home to be with her 9-month-old son.  "I decided I wanted to spend time with him, then I had my other children, and I raised my family," she says. All the while she was continually attending UW taking ballet courses. "I had been a ballet dancer all my life. It's my second love."

Rooney had considered a master's in dance, teaching at a junior college and opening a studio of her own, but she had a decision to make. With only a few courses to take to complete a bachelor's degree in either dance or microbiology, she had to choose which career she really wanted to pursue.  Then she took biochemistry. "That was it," she says. "That was the science I wanted to be in."  She obtained her bachelor's degree in microbiology in 1984.

Then, having recently become a single mother, she subsequently obtained her degree over a stretch of six years. "It was crazy," she recalls. "I had a couple of teenagers. Teens and parents can get on top of each other, but we didn't have time to do that. I remember I would have some (harried) younger students come into my office and say, "I'm crazy! How are you doing this?" There was another person in the department who preceded me doing exactly the same thing I was. She was an inspiration. I knew it could be done, and, at that time, people were not doing it as much as now. It was just starting to get like that."

She found that her Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1990 was only a beginning. She was already at her post doc position when she returned to defend her thesis. "I was enjoying the work so much," she says. "This was my entry point into what I really wanted to do in science. I had so much fun doing research at the university."

Radmilla Micanovic, research adviser with Lilly Research Laboratories LLC, and also a UW alumnus, first met Rooney in 1984 when Rooney joined the UW department as a graduate student. They've remained friends over the years.

"Regina was a very hardworking, supportive, and cooperative colleague, always willing to help and share learning," says Micanovic. "I also remember her as a person of high integrity, energy, focus, self-motivation, able to make and follow through decisions with speed and energy, very reliable, and resourceful. She was notably ambitious and a high achiever but, at the same time, highly ethical and a very trustworthy friend and colleague."

Rooney says she and her fellow students were fortunate to have wonderful seminar speakers, including Nobel Prize winners. "And we could talk to them one-on-one because we had such small classes," notes Rooney. "We had a couple come in from the scientific industry. There were small biotech companies cropping up all over, and our professors knew these people. From listening to them, by the time I got my degree, I intended to go into the scientific industry of biotechnology."

She worked five years at her post doc position at the University of California at Riverside (UCR) and made a key discovery on the activity of a protein kinase and the laboratory started applying for patents.

Rooney worked in the laboratory of Jolinda Traugh, professor of biochemistry at UCR. Traugh spoke of Rooney's creativity and her research on the protein kinase PAK. "Regina made a major breakthrough when she found that PAK was activated in quiescent cells," notes Traugh. PAK was identified as a stress-activated protein kinase that inhibited cell division.

"As a result of her research, Regina also had a major role in obtaining a patent on PAK as a therapy for cancer through inhibition of cell division," says Traugh. "The projects she has developed have been a boon to technology, especially in the area of electrophoresis."

Five years after joining UCR Rooney says it was time to leave and started looking at industry.  Her entry into industry was to be Nanogen, a small San Diego, California-based start-up company with 26 employees at the time she joined.  She would eventually work at Invitrogen of Carlsbad, California, from 1999-2005, leaving as the technical area manager of research and development for all electrophoresis products.

Many of her accomplishments promoted the development of basic protein separation technologies that now benefit both agricultural and medical research, says Langer, many launched by Invitrogen. "She directed research and development of their line of electrophoresis products," notes Langer. "Her work in developing new methods and apparati for protein analysis contributed to the emerging field of proteomics, which is now at the core of many experimental programs."

Rooney was Tom Beardslee's first manager in the electrophoresis/proteomics group at Invitrogen. "Throughout the development of these products, it was my pleasure to work with Regina as her imagination in design and leadership of teams from multiple disciplines served as a positive role model in my new career in industry," he says.

Work in private industry wasn't much different from academia, Rooney says. The politics were a little different, and there was access to more research equipment and materials to meet the tight timelines. "You always have to report to someone, and you always have to get money to work," she says. She found the interdisciplinary nature of it wonderful. "That's what I loved about industry."

Husband Richard, who had worked as a scientist for a pharmaceutical company, left his firm about six months after Regina left hers. "Richard and I both wanted to open a consulting firm," she says. "We decided to incorporate and go back to Moran. It's next to Teton National Park. You can see the Tetons. We had been spending time there and decided since we were free agents, we could establish residence wherever we chose. In this type of work, it's the sort of thing you can do all over the world. We wind up traveling to clients."

The company has five U.S.- and European-based clients.

From their home in California getting ready to travel to Moran she offers her own definition of the American Dream.

"What it really comes down to, we worked very, very hard, the same as academic scientists," she says. "You're working all the time. But most important, we can now spend time with our grandkids. That is the American Dream. We have two grandkids and two dreams."

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