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Terry Magnuson was a 20-year-old biology major when he saw a call for proposals from the National Science Foundation, an organization he had never heard of, looking to fund student-led research.

Four of his friends also saw the ad, and this group of five students from the University of Redlands in the San Bernardino Valley of Southern California decided they wanted to study pollution in Hilo Bay, Hawaii. To their surprise, the NSF agreed to fund them. Magnuson spent the summer in Hilo studying toxicity in fish populations. He was immediately taken and thought, “If this is what research is – thinking, investigating, discovering – then count me in.”

Forty-three years later, Magnuson is chair of the department of genetics at UNC-Chapel Hill and vice dean of research at the UNC School of Medicine. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and also to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

This summer he was appointed to the National Institutes of Health Council of Councils, an exclusive group of the top minds in the nation charged with guiding research projects that transcend the focus of just one of the NIH’s centers or institutes.

Magnuson recently discussed his path to UNC, his research, the ever-evolving field of genetics research, and his new role on the Council of Councils:

You were born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and chose a small liberal arts school in the desert. How did you wind up spearheading the creation of UNC’s genetics department?

When I was in high school in Southern California, I visited the University of Redlands, which had about 1,600 students. I really didn’t think much about choosing a school, and I didn’t receive much guidance. I majored in biology but wasn’t sure what direction I would be going.

But after that research project in Hilo Bay, I decided research was the way to go for me. And I thought about the biggest problem out there. I decided to study cancer. And I figured I might as well do that in the biggest city in the country – New York. So I applied to Cornell – Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

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Story by Mark Derewicz, UNC Health Care

Photo by Max Englund, UNC Health Care

Published September 29, 2014