2006 Distinguished career award: Randy Jirtle

// Engineering Physics

Tags: alumni, Engineers' Day, EP E-Day, Randy Jirtle

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Randy L. Jirtle 
Professor of Radiation Oncology
Duke University
BSNE ’70
Durham, NC

As an undergraduate in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics, Randy L. Jirtle attended a series of lectures by UW-Madison Human Oncology Professor Kelly Clifton about the effects of radiation on the human body. The lectures sparked a flourishing career in which Jirtle explored the human genome, radiation, oncology, and the relatively new field of epigenetics, the study of how genes and the environment produce their effects on an organism’s visible characteristics.

Among his accomplishments, Jirtle identified the IGF2R as being a tumor suppressor, and demonstrated that its mutation increases risk of cancer and decreased intelligence. He also showed that maternal nutrition during pregnancy affects adult disease susceptibility, not by mutating the genome, but by altering the epigenome, the set of DNA instructions that controls gene expression.

His academic career began in a one-room schoolhouse in northeastern Wisconsin. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1970 and went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in radiation biology under Clifton. Since 1977, he has been a member of the faculty at Duke University, where he is a professor of radiation oncology and an associate professor of pathology.

Jirtle’s engineering background enables him to interact with computer scientists in the use of machine learning software to determine what activates or inactivates genes. The quantitative approaches he learned as he trained to be an engineer are now vital in the way he views biology. He happily straddles the fields of biology and physics, and once again is using his engineering training as he begins a project to understand the impact of radiation on the epigenome. His efforts may enable him to identify nutritional supplements that protect the body from low-dose radiation.

He has more than 150 published articles to his credit, as well as numerous book chapters and a book on liver regeneration and carcinogenesis. Jirtle was an invited speaker at the 2004 Nobel Symposium on Epigenetics in Stockholm, Sweden. The National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Department of Energy support his research.

Jirtle lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Bonnie, a high school junior. His son, James, graduated from Rice University in Houston, Texas, and plans to study music and theology at the University of Durham in England. When not giving numerous invited talks or working in his lab, Jirtle enthusiastically cultivates a garden of flowers and vegetables, which he tries to keep safe from a proliferating local deer population.