It was a dare from a professor that propelled Dr. James Womack into the field of genetics research, a field of study in which he excelled beyond what he ever imagined.
This distinguished professor and winner of the prestigious Wolf Prize in Agriculture in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM)—often considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize—started out as a basketball player. His dad was the basketball coach at Hawley High School, just north of Abilene. There, Womack, who was the family’s oldest son, played and became a basketball star. After his high school graduation in 1959, Womack went to Abilene Christian College (ACC), now a university (ACU), on a basketball scholarship. While there, he was the team captain for two years and has since earned a place in the ACU Sports Hall of Fame.
Knowing that the NBA was out of reach, Womack studied math education and planned to follow in his father’s footsteps to teach math and coach basketball. However, his plans would change.
“Somehow, I decided instead of math I wanted to go to dental school,” he said. “I checked dental school requirements, and I needed a couple of biology courses.” Since basketball practice took up his afternoons, he searched for a biology course that didn’t have a lab component—the course that fit into his schedule was a course in genetics.
Noting that ACC was a small school where “everybody knew everybody,” he approached the genetics professor, asking him whether he could take his course without any prerequisites. The professor said, “You’re an athlete, aren’t you?” When Womack responded with a yes, the professor replied, “An athlete couldn’t pass my course even if they had the prerequisites. I think it would be foolish for you to take it.” Womack asked him if he would let him try, and the response was, “Yeah, you can try—it’s your grade young man.”
Womack immediately ran to the bookstore, where he purchased the course’s textbook, “Genetics” by Ira Herskowitz—for a mere $8—something he still jokes with his students about. “Before my first genetics class, I read the entire book, all 466 pages. The supplement following the text is what excited me,” said Womack. “It was a compilation of papers beginning with a letter by Mendel, followed by six Nobel Prize winner’s lectures, whose work brought genetics to the forefront of science.” All of this occurred around 10 years after Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double helix, something Womack found exciting. “I decided, man, I don’t want to go to dental school. I want to study genetics,” said Womack. And, this was the beginning of his illustrious career.
Life in Academia Begins
Of course, Womack passed that genetics course at Abilene Christian. In fact, he became friends with the professor who had unknowingly inspired his career path. What everyone soon learned about James Womack was that if you challenge him at just about anything, you can be sure he will overcome all obstacles to come out on top.
In 1963, Womack married Raby Beakley, who was teaching elementary school in Abilene, Texas. Raby was a superstar in her own right, and the community and students did not want to let her go. But, Womack was offered an opportunity he couldn’t turn down, so they moved to Oregon, where he attended Oregon State University on a full scholarship and earned a Ph.D. in genetics in 1968.
A few years after graduating from Oregon State, Womack returned to ACU and taught in the biology department for five years before deciding he wanted to do more research than he was able to do in Abilene. He was offered a position at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, where he once again excelled at his work. Although he enjoyed his work in Maine, the position did not involve teaching students, something Womack missed. After a few years, he began to look for something new.
In 1977, an associate professor position opened at Texas A&M University, and Womack jumped at the opportunity. The position was part of a comparative medicine program between the CVM and Baylor College of Medicine. After applying for the position, Womack was interviewed by Dr. Charles Bridges, head of the Department of Veterinary Pathology, who recently passed away.
“They didn’t hire many non-veterinarians in the veterinary college then,” Womack remembered. “There are a lot of us now, but especially in pathology, it was pretty unusual to have a non-DVM in the position. But, they hired me, and I loved it. Working here has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”
Womack has been part of the Texas A&M family for 39 years. The distinguished professor, a designation he has held since 2001, has a joint appointment in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine at Texas A&M’s College of Medicine and the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Pathobiology. He was promoted to professor in 1983, and two years later received the W.P. Luse Endowed Professorship. From 1989 to 1996, he was director of the Center for Animal Genetics at the Institute of Biosciences and Technology, and he was named interim associate department head for the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology from 1990 to 1993.
Dr. James Womack, distinguished professor at the CVM researches inherited resistance to disease in certain animals—both individual animals and breeds. For example, certain cattle have evolved a stronger defense against bacterial and viral pathogens. Womack wants to understand the genetics behind this because it could allow breeders to develop a healthier herd. This is the topic of his most recent USDA-funded research project.
Bovine respiratory disease is the most common and costly disease affecting the North American cattle industry. “Not all cattle respond to bovine respiratory pathogens the same, and we’re trying to develop a DNA chip where a little bit of DNA can determine the relative susceptibility or resistance of a particular animal to respiratory disease,” Womack said.
Womack and his team of researchers have identified some genes and clusters of genes that convey resistance, and although they are still being validated with additional studies, they have begun to publish the data. Their goal is to give dairy and beef cattle breeders a tool, the DNA chip, to help determine if an animal is resistant to bovine respiratory pathogens. “We want to be able to look at the DNA chip and say we want to breed this individual, and this one will have offspring that are more resistant,” he said.
Womack’s research isn’t restricted to cattle; he has worked extensively with mice as well as chickens. He has spent time in Korea studying chickens with the same goal—finding genes that confer disease resistance. Recently, he studied a gene in rats that allows the rats to be resistant to Rift Valley fever, a disease that has taken a toll in Africa and affects cattle, sheep, and goats. “We found a rat model for it and identified that gene,” Womack said. “We occasionally work with dogs, cats, pigs, and horses, too.”
Most of Womack’s research has taken place right here in College Station. He said he “got a good start” in research at the Jackson Laboratory, but he was able to continue his work in his current position. “I was very interested in the evolution of animal genomes, how the mouse genome compared to the human genome, and what the differences are between them. When I got here, I expanded my research into the cattle genome. My work is kind of comparative genomics, I guess, and how these little subtle differences seemed to make a difference and why cattle have more genes related to immune function than other mammals,” he said.
James Womack noted that his students have been a large part of the success he’s enjoyed in research. His 50th doctoral student recently defended her dissertation, and he has had a myriad of master’s students as well.
“We have a genetics graduate program here, and we have 10 or 12 students every year admitted to that program,” he said. “They apply from all over the country. We also have international students here who know about our program, maybe from professors in China or Korea, who also contact us.”
In fact, it was one of his former students, now a professor at Washington State University, who contacted him regarding the USDA Bovine Respiratory program.
“Then, another fellow, whom I had worked with before at the University of Missouri, and a group at the University of California, Davis—we all just got together and said, ‘Let’s put one of these big grants together.’” They nominated Womack as their project leader.
Womack continues to love and be inspired by teaching undergraduate students. “These are juniors and seniors, and they’re usually applying to medical schools, veterinary colleges, and graduate schools. I write a lot of letters, and then they stay in touch with me. I enjoy that. My students kind of become like my children.”
Honored by His Peers
Although his list of honors is lengthy, there is one award of which James Womack is most proud. It’s the Wolf Prize in Agriculture, which he received in 2001 for his “use of recombinant DNA technology to revolutionize plant and animal sciences, paving the way for applications to neighboring fields,” according to the Wolf Foundation, which awards the prize.
The Wolf Prize in Agriculture is awarded annually in Israel. One of six such prizes established by the Wolf Foundation, the Wolf Prize in Agriculture is considered by many to be the Nobel Prize within the field of agriculture.
Prior to that honor, in 1999, he was named to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). This organization recognizes and promotes outstanding science through election to its membership, publication in its prestigious journal, and its awards, programs, and activities. Election to the NAS is considered one of the highest honors a scientist can receive. Today, there are approximately 2,250 members and nearly 440 foreign associates, of whom approximately 200 have received Nobel prizes.
Womack’s other honors include the Bush Excellence Award for Faculty in International Research, Texas A&M University, 2008; Dean’s Impact Award, College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science, Texas A&M, 2007; Outstanding Alumnus of the Year, Abilene Christian University, 2006; Distinguished Service Award, Texas Genetics Society, 2006; Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1999; Outstanding Texas Geneticist, Texas Genetics Society, 1996; CIBA Prize for Research in Animal Health, 1993; McMaster Fellow, CSIRO, Australia, 1990; Carrington Award for Research in Cell Biology, 1990; Faculty Distinguished Achievement Award for Research, Texas A&M University, 1987; and the Alumni Citation Award, Abilene Christian University, 1983.
He serves or has served on editorial boards for these publications: Genomics, Journal of Heredity, Biochemical Genetics, Animal Genetics, Mammalian Genome, Genome Research, and Animal Biotechnology.
Womack said many “coffee pot discussions” take place outside his office. “I usually leave my door open, and the coffee pot’s right out there. I have a lot of people coming by.” A lot of those people coming by are fellow researchers. He said it’s valuable and interesting to learn about the research of others, and that some things that would seem to be unrelated actually can shed light on other topics.
Spending time with other faculty members and researchers is important to Womack. He often sits down to learn from and brainstorm with Drs. James Derr, Scott Dindot, Loren Skow, Terje Raudsepp, Chris Seabury, Mike Criscitiello, and others. “We’ve come to realize that this fast-paced world requires strong partnerships to leverage creativity, experience, and resources. With unique thinkers, we can help one another generate ideas—and possibly arrive at viable solutions in less time,” said Womack.
All in the Family
Womack’s wife, Raby, has been a shining light in his life for many years, setting aside her own career at times to move and provide tranquility to a busy family. Tragically, the Womacks’ son, James Michael Womack, was killed in a car accident in 2013. Their daughter, Wendy Hill, is a nurse who lives in Austin and has two children. One grandson, Quaid Faltys, is following in his grandfather’s “almost” footsteps, as he just graduated from dental school. The other, his daughter’s youngest son, a third-grader, shares a love of hunting and fishing with his grandfather.
“We have a lot of fun together,” Womack said. “We have a little ranch out near Wheelock. He’s my big farm hand, and hunting and fishing partner. My son and I did a lot of outdoor stuff together. My nine-year-old grandson has decided he’s going to replace my son as my buddy.” His thoughtful young grandson is named James Hamlin Hill, after his two grandfathers: James Womack and Hamlin Hill, a Mark Twain scholar who led the English Department at Texas A&M prior to his death in 2002.
By his side through this journey has been Womack’s wife, whom he calls “a great teacher” and who, now retired, had a 30-year teaching career, right here in College Station. “She has second-graders who are now 50 or 60 years old who still contact her for friendly chats or to ask her advice. She’s a whole lot smarter than me,” he said. “I have been blessed.”