Honoring Stephen Wainwright: a Compendium

Barbara Block

Steve Wainwright for me was inspirational; he lifted me throughout my career from intern with Dr. Frank Carey at WHOI to professor at Stanford. He was more than a committee member,  he was truly a guiding mentor in my Duke graduate school experience and my entire career!  His enthusiasm for my efforts on big fish from when I first met Steve – when I was dissecting a porbeagle shark at WHOI in the summer of 1979, to his ongoing support of our Tag A Giant Campaign to put new technology on giant fish in the sea – kept me always motivated to do more to uncover the mysteries of the ocean biodiversity, especially biomechanically. I was thrilled to show him our first video looking at the biomechanics of a the tail beat in a live giant bluefin in the sea complete with high resolution accelerometry and video-of course he said “Whoa”!  He was a true advisor in the 1980s to all of us in biomechanics and physiology at Duke, caring, guiding, enthusiastic and nurturing. His mentoring contribution was to nurture all of us as students with a mind, spirit and whole body experience- that touched our own source of inner creativity, enabling many of us to blossom as scientists. He fed us his enthusiasm and inspiration, and we interwove our various budding expertises into a more complex canvas because he helped each one of us- paint our unique science in a variety of interdisciplinary colors. I miss him greatly but know when I dissect a bluefin or a lamnid shark with my students, we all know so much more of what to look for because of his creative thinking. He will always remain one of a kind — and the engine that sparked so many of us into the large animal biomechanics-of-movement path.

Norm Budnitz

As a founder of the Center for Inquiry-Based Learning, Steve worked to bring the art of questioning to elementary and middle school science teaching. And of course, he did so with all his usual joy in experiencing the natural world.

Sue and Clay Cook 

In the late 1960s, we (Clay and Sue Cook) were part of a diverse group of Steve’s graduate students with interests ranging from sea cucumber physiology to symbiosis and homing behavior in limpets. Steve’s genius was to use his critical eye to guide and focus our work while connecting us to the expertise of friends and colleagues (Martin Wells for Sue and Len Muscatine for Clay).  His remarkable intellect (not to mention his generous hospitality and amazing wine cellar) made our graduate years very special!

Hugh Crenshaw

I never managed to visit Steve’s wine “cellar,” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t benefit from it.  Donna and I were throwing a big party at my house to celebrate my 30th.  Steve arrived hours before the scheduled time, apologizing that he had a conflict and could not attend.  In a classic example of Steve’s incredible generosity, he also apologized that he didn’t have a wine from the year of my birth, but he did have one from the year of my conception.  What a great bottle!  Donna and I will always miss Steve’s smile and spirit.

Tom Daniel

Many of us owe our careers to Steve and, in small ways, have attempted to replicate his support of students.  He promoted excellence and generously supported  graduate student research and scholarship, he encouraged originality, and his selfless support of early career scientists was a role model to all of us.  In many ways,  Steve ushered in a sort of golden age of Comparative Biomechanics — bringing together science, technology and observations of nature to reveal the principles of function and form in living systems. His keen observations informed both his art and his science and led to discoveries of principles of structures and movement in biology. He was, in a sense, a Leonardo (da Vinci, not Dicaprio!)  of our generation, ushering in the renaissance of comparative biomechanics.  You would be hard pressed to find an equivalent.

It was Steve who got me working on a crazy project of swimming in skates.  He took a small crew of us to Beaufort to film them.  We did a fluid dynamics analysis of their swimming which, I think, Steve called “a bunch of doodly math.” But he really got the last word in helping title the paper, “Fast forward flapping flight from flexing fins.”  He declined authorship since he didn’t do any of the doodly math.

Mark Denny

It would be very difficult to sum up SAW’s influence in biomechanics and on the students he fostered: a passion for the science, flamboyant shirts, and bawdy songs. But a large part of his influence was his generosity. After I graduated from Duke, he hired me for a year on his own nickel to do whatever research I wanted. I ended up working on spider silk, and that started me off on all that has followed. Similar generosity – both monetary and intellectual – jump-started the whole field, with effects that have cascaded down through the years. We owe him a lot.

Olaf Ellers

Steve was indeed a special, inspiring person with an extraordinary capability to support the creative work of others. When I started graduate school at Duke in 1983, Steve was chair of the department and he gave a wonderful welcoming speech to the 10 new graduate students that year. He said that the department had chosen us and had great confidence in us and that we had 5 fully funded years to do whatever creative thing we wanted to do. To me this was a surprising and very inspiring view of graduate school and I have carried that sense of permission to be creative with me for the rest of my life. During my graduate career Steve continued to support me with encouragement and funding.

He had a joyous, accessible grasp of animal form and function introducing new broad brush understandings of biomechanics and inspiring a generation of scientific work.

Gail Grabowsky

My favorite Wainwright paraphrased quote is: “I am just here to help you give yourself permission to become all you can be!“ So very Buddhist of him to help us get out of our own way!

Melina Hale

I was so fortunate to have Steve as an undergraduate mentor. He introduced me to biomechanics of musculoskeletal systems and movement, powerfully shaping my research career. He also brought wonderful richness to science and life, drawing connections between art and biology through exploration and wonder. He mentored kindly and with a creative joy that was infectious. Even for a young student with little experience, he treated you like a colleague whose ideas deserved careful thought, nurturing self esteem as well as scientific minds.

Matt Healy

When I die, I hope I end up in a place that resembles Steve Wainwright’s office or living room, only with even more cool objects and infinite time to explore it. He was curious about everything. His collection of biological specimens, art works, puzzles, toys, games, gadgets, and indescribable whatever was truly amazing. His wide-ranging curiosity was an inspiration for us all.

My own career has gone off into totally unexpected directions, mostly in the Biotech space, but one thing has remained constant: whenever I need to make a decision about what to do next, I choose whichever available option looks to me the most interesting.

Harry Itagaki

I do remember something that SAW said that has always stuck with me.  We were leaving the BoZo [Botany/Zoology at Duke] Auditorium after a not-so-great seminar by some eminent English biologist; as we walked out, he observed to me that “BS always sounds better with an English accent.”  That’s as true as things get.

Sonke Johnsen

The first time I saw Steve, he was 55, and I was a dancer thinking of becoming a biologist. We stood outside his office, and he told me about Tai Chi, which he called the oldest dance. I liked his smile.

I spent the next six years trying hard, and failing, to please him – not even being able to tell a parrot beak from a squid beak as they were both pulled from his exam bag. Four years after that, I came back to North Carolina, and over the next couple decades we talked about dance, art, children, and grandchildren – sometimes even science.

The last time I saw Steve, he didn’t talk, but he still had that smile I’d known for over thirty years. A kind smile, but also mischievous, like he could see something you couldn’t. As a student in his office, I always imagined that there was a secret garden behind my head that he was enjoying, that would vanish the moment I turned my head. Now, at 55 myself, I think I get it. Good-bye, Steve.

Amy Johnson

Steve Wainwright is a keystone scientist – he has shaped the careers and science of scholars of biomechanics, such as myself, in deep, fundamental and lasting ways. And this was achieved with a joyful graciousness, colorful artistry and abiding generosity that is woven into the field he inspired. He was an inspiration on so many levels. I will always remember a SICB banquet when I was an unknown graduate student in Mimi Koehl’s lab, when he caught my eye from across the room and, in a gesture of inclusiveness, raised his glass to me and so I to him.

Bill Kier

I benefited tremendously from Steve’s mentoring, support and generosity.  Steve was passionate about the importance of good writing, he insisted that we always consider the broader implications of our work, he was unfailingly generous and supportive, he was a steadfast and enthusiastic advocate, he inspired by his boldness in reaching beyond normal disciplinary boundaries, and he had an infectious enthusiasm for form, function and beauty in nature that altered my view of the world.  I miss him.

Mimi Koehl

Steve taught us students to think broadly about the basic principles our studies could reveal by subjecting us to the dreaded crystal ball question when we came to him with a research idea: “If I had a crystal ball and told you the answer to that question, so what? Why is it worth knowing that?”  We would slink away and think about why that issue was worth pursuing, but when we went back to Steve to tell him, he would crystal-ball us again, over and over until we could say to him, “This IS of basic importance, and here’s why…”

Mike LaBarbera

Steve Wainwright taught me how to write, how to use chopsticks, how to teach and to honor the craft of teaching, and to celebrate one’s aesthetic sensibility. And he loaned me his beach house for my honeymoon. He was a full-service mentor.

John Long

Steve taught me to be wary of the curse of the academic: you can criticize anything.  But we aren’t trained, expected, or encouraged to do the opposite: find the pearl in the oyster.  While ready and willing to critique, Steve showed us how to find the gems hidden in every idea and every human doing this courageous creative work of scientific investigation.  Wah!

Kate Loudon

I have totally struggled how to capture the extraordinary, creative, constructive, challenging, and fun environment that SAW generated (and my gratitude) in mere words. So I thought I would just say that:

It is hard to describe in words how extraordinary it was to be in the biomechanics group at Duke as a graduate student. Steve’s generosity, creativity, and joyfulness was a catalyst for amazing interactions and scientific advances. Thanks, Steve – our collective successes are part of your legacy.

Tatsuo Motokawa

Steve was writing ‘Axis and Circumference’ when he kindly invited me to join his research members. He was the first to come to his lab in the morning, and I was also an early bird. With a coffee cup he told me about what he was writing. When I heard that plants and animals are cylindrical in shape, I remembered the words of Paul Cezanne who wrote in his letter, “View the things in nature as cylinders or spheres or triangular pyramids.” Steve shared his view with artists.

Because the view that organisms are cylindrical is very important that even children should know, I wrote an essay about this view that appeared in the textbook of Japanese elementary schools. I also made two songs: one is titled “Organisms are cylindrical” and the other “Our palms are flat.” I visited more than one hundred elementary schools to give classes in which I sang those songs and asked pupils why our palms and ears are flat and performed some experiments to show that cylinders are strong. The textbooks in which my essay appeared was used by about 60% of the same generation of Japanese children, which means that so many Japanese children learned what Steve taught us.

Phil Motta

Throughout my undergraduate career at Duke Steve mentored me on research as well as taught me in the Biomechanics course. His input was invaluable and much appreciated.

Gordon Murdock

Steve loved and took great joy from the company of creative people (Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, Carolyn Vaughan, See-Saw Studio, Norm Budnitz, John Gosline, Mimi Koehl, Jerry Vaughan, his family, Jonathan Kingsolver, Steve Vogel, all those on your address list, and many more).  I never heard a disparaging word about an associate/student.  He was generous in his support, both moral and practical,  of talented folks he embraced.

Katy Muzik

“Glee, Rosebuds and Dogwoods, remembered 2021”

Remembering Steve, today I planted a beautiful “Yellow Twig” dogwood tree, here in my SW Oregon coastal garden. (It’s a Western species of Cornus, a variety of C. sericea, not the Eastern C. florida, a native of North Carolina and its State flower). The endeavor has comforted me, helping me to honor both Spring and Steve, and helping me to compose myself as I still grieve his departure, and to compose these words as I now celebrate my memories of him.

How gleeful and ecstatic was our SAW, expressing his delight when introducing me 5 decades ago to the springtime redbuds and dogwoods blooming alongside Duke Forest! I was astounded and enchanted then, and remain quite amazed now, just remembering his unbridled and emphatic joy. (Here are a few typically-SAW words from one of the many multi-colored letters he sent me, this one to Okinawa, dated April 2, the year he was honored to become a James B. Duke Professor and was bestowed a Chair: “Hiya Papaya…. a bright crisp Carolina Spring morning fills my heart with glee for thee, tee hee and me.”)

I know that Steve would have enjoyed the encouraging beauty of these bright yellow stems of his tree here, now, next its flowers, then its summer-y, wildly-variegated leaves and then, yes, of course, colorful!! autumn foliage. Such solace, such life, promising Spring eternal! Doubly impactful, its pretty branches remind me of the shimmery golden axial skeleton of Stephanogorgia wainwrighti, a gorgonian sea fan I discovered during our visit to Fiji in 1972, and later named with my Octocorallia mentor Dr. F.M. Bayer. (Quoting from our 1976 publication about the etymology of the new genus and new species:  Stephanos, Greek for crown, is “in allusion to the gold of which crowns may be made as well as to the proper name Stephen”. Thus Stephanogorgia, and, wainwrighti too, are scientific names “in honor of Dr. Stephen A. Wainwright, the leader of the Duke Expedition to the Fiji Islands, 1972”. Here is the reference:  Zoologische Mededelingen, 1976: Deel 50 # 5: 65-90. On page 77, Plate I, is a black and-white photo of a lovely colony I collected, not at all doing justice to its living golden gorgonian grandeur in the clear blue seas of yesteryear.)

I thank SAW for so generously having shared his wealth, his knowledge, his wine, his tea, his time, his friendship, his love and especially, his glee, with me and so many others…

Lisa Orton

Steve was all about ‘giving permission’.  I wrote it on the cup I made him when he retired.  His approach was finding out what we might be interested in doing or learning about, and then giving permission to explore the thing we most dreamed of exploring.

My first fall as a grad student, during a tutorial, he told me that he had a bit of sperm whale tail in his freezer, and invited me to a dissection party on Saturday.  He was surprised to find out later that he had handed me my pipe dream on a platter.

He hosted wine tastings where he put the prices on the bottles.  Some eye popping!  He said, ‘I want all of my graduate students to know something about fine wine when they leave my lab.’  And there were a lot of afternoon ice cream runs.

Perhaps the best thing he shared with us was each other.  I couldn’t wait to meet all who had gone before me, and who came after.

D. Ann Pabst

Things Steve Wainwright (SAW) taught me (or supported me while I found out on my own):

Always sit lower than the person you are meeting with. This simple action, which puts your fellow at ease and subtly tells them they are the most important person you could possibly be speaking with encapsulates Steve.  He did not say this to me – he showed me.

Always surround yourself with interesting and fun things – be they wonderful books, bones, pottery, glass, toys, sculptures, origami, fabrics….they make you happy, they make everyone else happy and they are openings to conversations about the world.

Bowties are the perfect accoutrement to any garb!

Work very hard and think very critically…and creatively.  Let every way that you interact with and sense the world be a portal for trying to understand it.

Let your students be fiercely independent but be there 100% when they need you.  It is a balancing act I have seen no one else do as well as Steve.

Build it!  If you think you know how a structure works, try to build it – this endeavor will illuminate what you do not know quickly and emphatically!  Then try again!

Be generous, be kind.

Most importantly, that life is beautiful.

Chuck Pell

Steve thought up the idea of The BioDesign Studio as an institute for living structures, a place where anyone could come to build tangible models of their system. Those models inevitably surprised even the most learned of us by exposing unexpected properties of any study subject. He drafted me from doing special effects out west to come set up the BDS for building (out of elastomers and fibers and goo) whatever anatomically relevant 3D working models of organisms anyone wished. SAW funded the whole thing, allowing over a hundred people (from undergrads to emeritus faculty) to come build physical models of their organisms (or interesting parts thereof). Every single person went away with novel insights into their research subjects, even if decades of study preceded their building sessions! SAW saw people as valuable for their unique perspectives and being, and I count myself extremely fortunate that Steve invited me to become an integral part of the Zoology/BLIMP mix. We are all forever changed for the better by the climate created and nurtured by The Two Steves.

Also, SAW wore the best hats, and he illuminated our world with the greatest collection of over-the-top Hawaiian shirts ever assembled. In this and many other ways, SAW set an example to help everyone to give themselves their own permission to pursue their dreams in science, art, and life. “Try it! See what happens! What if you find an answer? What changes?”

One of the best Wainwright quotes: “Natural design is worth studying, because in Nature, the Good designs eat the Bad designs! After a while, you’ve got a lot of good designs.”

A limerick about SAW, enjoyed by him at the celebration:

When faced with hyper-funicity
SAW seeks function’s complicity
Using science & art
To tease it apart
He gives us crystal simplicity!

(Note: SAW introduced many to the concept of “funicity.” English (pr. few – ni – city) Etymology. Coined by Viktor Weisskopf from the name of Ireneo Funes, a character who lost his ability to forget, in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Funes the Memorious (Funes el memorioso, 1942). (Noun)

  1. (physics) An inbuilt quality of materials that permanently “remember” their original time and place of creation.
  2. The reflection of an object’s own history in its current form.”)

That’s a fair description of what we seek to limn in the organisms and systems we admire. SAW said that it was the visual, aesthetic spectacle that drew him to ask questions in the first place.

Gigi Roark

It’s very hard to put into words the impact that Steve has (present tense) on my life and my family. Reducing it to a few words is difficult but that was always Steve’s point – what is the question? What is the essence? As I thought about it, I decided that the essence of Steve was vibrance.  In dress, in thought, in investigation and in teaching, think vibrantly. Think across disciplines and find out what sparks your imagination and enthusiasm. What a gift to be exposed to him and all the people he gathered to share in his delight in learning. It is my job to continually pass that SAW essence on.

We all miss him but, thankfully, the SAW vibrant streak is now incredibly widespread and still growing!

Sentinel Rommel

Steve’s office was an island haven in which you could safely and uninhibitedly explore ideas: an intellectual oasis, one of the most stimulating minds I have experienced.

V. Louise Roth

Steve was both multifarious and one-of-a kind. Hard to do justice to him in words (even the thousands of them encompassed in a picture or two), but this is what comes to mind:

Steve was above all generous…in the joy he expressed for ideas and for nature, in his appreciation of aesthetic (especially visual) and analytic aspects of the natural world, in underwriting students’ research and nurturing their talents, in honoring colleagues (measuring Kingdon’s iconic camel statue, which Steve commissioned to stand next to Duke’s BioSci Building in tribute to Knut, introduces my first-year “SIZE” class to these great integrative, comparative biologists—and a camel!), in colorfully and biomorphically decorating his surroundings (and famously his own hats & shirts), and more. I picture him wheeling a lab cart stocked with fine tea, fine ceramics, and puzzling parts of organisms into a prelim exam….

Tierney Thys

“Nature reveals great secrets in her extreme forms.” Steve Wainwright illuminated my world with these simple words in my first year of graduate school. Wainwright himself, with his playful spirit, was an extreme form. He led by example, granting us the freedom to understand the natural world by catalyzing our creativity and nurturing our curiosity.  Now that’s certainly a secret worth revealing.

Janice Voltzow

Steve nurtured us with creativity, generosity, and fine wines.

Mark Westneat

Steve taught us the beauty of blending art and science and the amazing scientific benefits of conceiving wild and crazy ideas in biology. Wainwright and Vogel each independently introduced me to my life partner; they are forever friends. He supported me emotionally and materially in so many ways. The sushi we ate! Field-work and fish dissection with Steve was absolute joy. He called me Carcass Marcus.