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Meet: Frank B. Salisbury, Ph.D.

Principal Investigator on Project Greenhouse
Utah State University

photo of frank salisbury

My Journals

Who am I?

I'm a person who loves to learn and to understand. There is nothing that beats that "aha" feeling! To pursue that feeling, I organized a local chapter of the Chemcraft Science Club during my first years at Irving Junior High in Salt Lake City. I got the "aha" feeling at Irving when I dissected a dead cat in Mr. Bogges' biology class! The feeling came when I was Hike Master at the Tracy Wigwam Scout Camp in Mill Creek Canyon and later at Camp Steiner in the Uintah Mountains as I led hikes and classified many of the plants that I saw. Those and similar experiences strongly fortified my desire to be a scientist.

As a botanist, I ought to be a great gardener, but I'm not. I'd rather tramp around in the hills identifying plants like I did for that botany merit badge. Although the years are gaining on me, I swim three times a week (usually about 2/3 of a mile), play tennis, ski (cross country and downhill), walk a lot, and otherwise keep active. Computers have not left me behind, although there are many programs I would like to learn if I could find the time. I hope to do sculpture when time allows. That is a wonderful way to relax while creating.

I was in the Army Air Force for 10 months at the end of World War II, and then I went on a mission to Switzerland for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) where I learned German. When I came back (1949), I got a job as a photographer for a studio in Salt Lake City while I attended the University of Utah. I've been involved in photography ever since and that has been a real asset to my science. I still do a little professional (meaning that I get paid!) work, but most photography is now a hobby. I love the dark-room work even more than taking the pictures, but time limits that now.

Although I don't talk about it much (enough?) in scientific circles, there is another aspect of who I am. My religion is very important to me. (I teach an adult Sunday School class.) There are various reasons, but one has much to do with what I've learned about the universe and especially about living things. I'm not saying that evolution doesn't work, but I strongly doubt that evolution by natural selection of random mutations is a sufficient mechanism to account for the incredible complexity of our living world. (I documented that idea in a paper in Nature magazine, Vol. 224: 342-343, in 1969. My arguments have never been refuted -- just ignored! We have learned much since 1969, and all we have learned strengthens my arguments.) As the years go by, it seems increasingly obvious to me that there has to be intelligence behind it all, not just random chance processes. Living things are the result of design.

My Career Journey

Our Project

I am a botanist (studies plants), but especially a plant physiologist (studies how plants function). Right now I am the project leader on the Shuttle/Mir "Project Greenhouse." This project includes three other scientists here at Utah State University (Gail Bingham, Bill Campbell and John Carman), two scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center (Dave Bubenheim and Boris Yendler), and a group of scientists at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, Russia. A number of engineers and others at NASA Ames and in Moscow keep things running smoothly. The goal of the project is to grow a special short wheat called Super-Dwarf (only 30 cm, about 1 ft, tall) in a small growth chamber on Mir through a complete life cycle and then, from a second planting, to get some fresh plants that can be frozen in liquid nitrogen and returned to Earth for analysis. During the seed-to-seed experiment, sample plants are harvested five times and put into chemical fixative for later analysis on Earth. Excess material is dried, also for later analysis. The plant growth chamber is called Svet, which means light in Russian. It is not really a greenhouse, which in English is a place where plants grow under glass getting their light from the sun. In Russian, the same word is used for a greenhouse and a plant growth chamber like Svet, which provides light from small fluorescent lamps.

At Utah State University we have built some sophisticated equipment to measure carbon dioxide, water vapor, oxygen, cabin pressure, temperatures (air, leaves, and "soil," called the "substrate" because it isn't really soil), and how much water there is in the substrate. This will allow us to measure photosynthesis and environmental factors that might cause stress in our wheat. Here and at NASA Ames and in Moscow, we have been doing many ground experiments to see how wheat grows under many of the stresses that we expected to be present in Svet, such as relatively low light and high carbon dioxide.

How did I get to this point?

old photo of frrank in boy scouts?Because I turned 70 on August 3 and expect to retire when our Shuttle/Mir experiment is finished next June, I have had a rather long career journey. In my memory, it began when I was nine years old. My dad, who was not a scientist but running for county clerk in Utah County, explained to me about how we lived on the bottom of an ancient lake bed -- and you could plainly see the shore lines of that ancient Lake Bonneville around the valley where we lived. I decided that it was so much fun to learn about how things work and what they mean that I wanted to be a scientist. But there was a problem: everything was interesting, so I didn't know what kind of scientist I wanted to be. I enjoyed all my science and math classes in junior high and high school, and I obtained most (all?) of the science-related merit badges from the Boy Scouts of America (shown in first row, far left). One of those took me a year to earn: the botany merit badge! I worked so hard on my own, learning how to identify plants, that I was able to skip the introductory taxonomy course at the University of Utah. So, without losing interest in the other sciences, I ended up as a botanist. If you like chemistry and physics as well as biology, which I did, then the logical thing for a botanist is to become a plant physiologist.

I completed bachelor and master's degrees at the University of Utah, studying for my master's the plants that grow on the Big Rock Candy Mountain in south-central Utah. The mountain is the exposed cross section of an ancient hot spring and the material (not really a soil) is extremely acidic (pH 3.4!) I studied the physiology and ecology of the plants growing on the mountain. Then, I went to the California Institute of Technology to work on my doctoral degree. At that time (1952-54), Caltech was the mecca for plant physiology. James Bonner, my major professor, and Arthur Galston had just written a text book on plant physiology, and James (as we all called him) had also written a book on plant biochemistry. Frits Went had just built the first really advanced controlled-environment facility for the growth of plants. He could study physiological ecology better than anyone ever had! It was an exciting place to be!

I began to test a theory on how plants are affected in their flowering by light and plant hormones. James and another student who had just graduated had just developed the theory. As it happened, no one else was working on this problem, but James had a grant that supplied enough money to hire a man to plant and care for plants and another man to help me set up the experiments. I studied the flowering cocklebur plants (Xanthium strumarium) because they flowered when they were exposed to just one night that was longer than about 9.5 hours (8.3 h if they were exposed to several nights). A brief flash of light in the middle of the dark period inhibits flowering. There was much to do. I used various light treatments, dipped the leaves in various chemicals (mostly the plant hormone, auxin), and did many other things -- actually about 125 experiments. This was great sport because all of my experimental results conflicted with the theory James and the student had developed! Because James was a true scientist, he never tried to push his ideas onto me, although we argued in a friendly way for most of the two years that I worked with him. Finally, as I was writing my doctoral dissertation, not knowing what to write in the conclusions chapter, James spent two days looking at all my results. He said: "You're right!" From then on, he never mentioned the other theory!

I continued to work on the physiology of flowering of cocklebur plants for the next 30 years although I spent the first year after finishing my doctoral work (1954-55) teaching biology, botany and ecology at Pomona College in Southern California. I replaced a man who was on sabbatical leave, and it was a wonderful teaching experience with about 25 students who were majoring in botany (an unusually large number -- few students major in botany). Then I went to Colorado State University where I taught plant physiology and other courses for 11 years. In addition to the flowering work, we had an exciting project studying the plants that grow above timber line in the alpine tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park.

At the University of Utah, I took an exhilarating class in astronomy, and at Caltech I minored in geochemistry (related to my Big Rock Candy Mountain studies). One seminar class in geochemistry at Caltech looked at the universe and the solar system. To get a grade, I had to write a paper and I chose to write about the possibilities of life on Mars. Much to my disappointment I only got a B+ on the paper, but it was later published in the Caltech alumni magazine, in the San Francisco Examiner, and in a book on Mars written by a Caltech astronomer. In 1962, I again wrote about life on Mars in a cover article for Science magazine, the granddaddy of American science journals. I also gave dozens of talks on the subject. Unfortunately, when the Mariner spacecraft sent back photographs of Mars in 1965, it turned out that much of what we thought we knew about Mars was wrong! But this interest took me close to the new space program, and when NASA was organized in about 1960, Tex Baker and I at Colorado State got one of the first three biology grants from NASA. We studied how plants respond to ultraviolet light (known to be very high on the surface of Mars) and freezing temperatures (Mars is cold!).

Thanks to that science paper about life on Mars, I got letters about unidentified flying objects (UFOs), and for about 18 years I tried to study the phenomenon in a scientific way; I even wrote a book (1974) about UFO sightings in north-eastern Utah. But don't ask if I believe in UFOs. The goal was to study what was going on; not to develop some kind of faith about it all. I concluded there are indeed strange things going on, but I'm not about to say that we are being visited by intelligent beings in space ships from other worlds.

These studies continued after I came to Utah State University to be head of the Plant Science Department in 1966. From then until about 1980, I was studying flowering with grants from the National Science Foundation and various things related to space with grants from NASA. (I resigned as department head in 1970.) In the late 1970s, we began to study plant gravitropism and also how to obtain maximum yields of wheat for use in a bioregenerative life-support system on the Moon or Mars, also called a Closed Ecological Life-Support System (CELSS). In 1984, we submitted a proposal to grow Super-Dwarf wheat in the shuttle. The proposal was accepted, but because of the Challenger accident, nothing happened for several years. Because of our work on CELSS, I traveled to Siberia in 1989, 1990 and 1992 to visit a facility that had been built there in 1972 in which people and plants could be sealed for up to six months to test the CELSS idea. This led to contracts with the scientists in Moscow who are now our colleagues on Project Greenhouse, and in late 1992 NASA decided to give us the money to develop that and it is now in progress.

So that is how I got to this point, but there are a couple of other things I would like to mention. I spent a sabbatical year in Germany and Austria (1962-63), a year at the Atomic Energy Commission headquarters near Washington, D.C. (now Dept. of Energy; 1973-74), and nine months on sabbatical in Austria and Israel (1983). Shortly after arriving at Utah State University, my colleague Cleon Ross at Colorado State and I wrote a text book on plant physiology. This book has gone through four editions and has been in use all over the world for 27 years. Indeed, back in high school and college when I hated all those English classes so much (English just didn't seem "scientific"!), little did I dream that I would end up spending much of my life writing (14 books, about 250 papers and articles). Another thing that I didn't dream of was how much travel goes along with being a scientist. Ever since we drove to my first science meeting in Santa Barbara while I was a student at Caltech, each year I have attended two or three or more such meetings, not to mention committee meetings, all over the United States and all over the world. It has been an exciting and wonderful life in science!


Many people have influenced my life, but I can't say that they directed me to where I am now. I pretty much figured out where I wanted to go on my own and then found these wonderful people to help me get there. Walter Cottam, a botanist/ecologist at the University of Utah, was certainly an inspiration, as were many other teachers there. For many years I stayed in touch with those professors from Caltech, James Bonner and Frits Went, and during recent years, I have worked with Art Galston on CELSS projects. The wonderful thing about science is that you can meet great people from all over the world and become good friends with them. Many of those friends have strongly influenced my life.

Likes About Career

What do I like best about being a scientist? Surely it is the opportunity to direct my own programs in trying to find out how the universe and especially the plants in that universe work. And because everything in that universe seems to be tied together, I love learning about all the things that affect plants: sunlight, nutrients and other chemicals, temperature, and many other things, even moonlight. I can study astronomy and relate it to how plants flower (that day-length business)! The very best thing is to get a good idea about how something works, test it, and have it work out -- or lead to another good idea.

Dislikes About Career

What do I like the least? As one climbs the career ladder, it is difficult to stay close to the fun -- the laboratory and outdoors part of the plant physiology. One ends up doing much paper pushing. There are tons of reports to write. There seldom seems to be time to write about science in the way that I enjoy.

Personal Information

My Family

I was married in 1949, and my wife and I had seven children: five boys and two girls. My oldest son is an engineer and now a full-time photographer (much of which he learned at home from me!). The second son is a doctor of internal medicine, and the third son works with computers at Thiokol Corporation, where they make the solid rockets that launch the Shuttle. My fourth son was killed in an automobile accident when he was sixteen. My two daughters are wonderful mothers and homemakers, and the fifth son is a representative of a pharmaceutical company. They are a bunch of great kids.

In 1991, I married Mary Thorpe, who has four daughters. When our Svet experiment on Shuttle/Mir is finished (with all those nice mature seeds produced in space along with the many samples and other material -- we hope!), Mary and I plan to serve an 18-month mission for our church. That is what many retired couples in our church do, and they enjoy the experience very much. I hope to return to a German-speaking country. When we come back, we will build a new home in Heber City, a small town in the mountains not far from Salt Lake City. Maybe then there will be time for fun photography, sculpture, reading and writing about science and also religion, and hiking in the mountains to look for those plants that I became acquainted with when I got the botany merit badge!


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