Remembering Robert Bonneau
Robert Bonneau had a passion for Penn State College of Medicine and its students. Through his 25 year career with Penn State, he served in a number of roles that advanced both the education and research missions, and endeared himself to hundreds of medical and graduate students.
Bonneau died on Thursday, March 3 after an illness.
His association with Penn State started with his undergraduate degree in microbiology from University Park in 1983. He then attended the College of Medicine for his doctorate in microbiology, which he received in 1989. He joined the staff in 1991 as a research associate and was named a professor of microbiology and immunology in 2006.
“In the short time I’ve known Rob, I’ve come to treasure our many conversations about immunology, 30-plus year recollections of current and former members of our department, love of Penn State, and his unerring allegiance to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates,” said Dr. Aron Lukacher, professor and chair of microbiology and immunology. “I also had the pleasure of witnessing his immense skill and joy teaching our medical students. Rob was a wonderful colleague and friend. I will miss him dearly.”
According to Richard Courtney, emeritus professor and former chair of microbiology and immunology, Bonneau connected with the college’s medical students.
“He had a real passion for the teaching of immunology to medical students,” Courtney said. “The students were quick to recognize his total commitment and were the beneficiaries of the innovative approaches he employed within his lectures. He was not hesitant to invest vast amounts of time and effort to apply unique methods to make very complex topics understandable.”
He received several teaching awards over the years, including the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and a variety of class awards. He was named a Distinguished Educator in 2008.
That passion also showed in his work with the College’s graduate students.
“He demonstrated the finest qualities of a mentor associated with the training of young scientists,” Courtney said. “He challenged his graduate students and set the bar high for their performance. He was highly supportive; however, encouraged them to think independently in the development of their research projects.”
One of those students from 1999-2004 was Jodi L. Yorty, now an associate professor of molecular biology at Elizabethtown College. She recalled a time she made a mistake while working in his laboratory, and how he helped make the situation a positive.
“When I told him about my mistake he remained calm and developed a way to salvage the experiment,” she said. “In fact, that experiment led to others and resulted in a publication. He always found the positive in every situation.”
She said she learned how to write scientifically through Bonneau’s perfectionism, and also how to be a teacher.
“Rob had a methodical way of leading students through difficult concepts, continually building on past material, helping us all to see the big picture,” she said. “I teach immunology at Elizabethtown College, and I’ve structured the class in a manner that matches how he would teach the material. I’ve had a successful career here, and I credit much of my success to the important lessons I learned while working for and with Rob in the laboratory.”
David Spector, emeritus professor of microbiology and immunology, taught alongside Bonneau.
“He was always well organized, and his lectures were very clear and accessible, but I don’t think that was the main reason the students –and all of us – appreciated him so much,” Spector said. “Rather, it was his basic humanity: the respect that he always showed for others, the good humor and the desire to see everyone succeed.”
His research program in neuroimmunology earned him a high level of respect from his peers at national and international levels in the field of immunology. His research interests included mechanisms of neuroendocrine-mediated modulation of immunity to herpes simplex virus infection and the role of the neuroendocrine system in modulating immunity to neonatal herpes simplex virus type 2 infection.
He served on several research-related committees, including as chair of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee since 2005.
“He was exactly the right person to fill this challenging role and always approached difficult decisions with sound reasoning and judgement,” said Ronald Wilson, professor and chair of comparative medicine. He also assisted the department by chairing its promotion and tenure committee, assisting with recruitment of faculty and key staff and participating in many department functions.
“As a veterinarian, Rob would often ask me questions or entertain me with stories about his beloved ‘weiner dog,’” Wilson said. “He was an integral part of our work family.”
According to colleague Todd Schell, professor of microbiology and immunology, Bonneau’s influence is felt throughout the College in ways many may not even realize.
“Rob rarely turned down a request to serve the College of Medicine and University, where he impacted key decision-making bodies of the research, education and service missions,” Schell said. “Most do not realize the extent of his influence and accomplishments at Penn State given his humble approach and lack of need for recognition. A blue-blooded Penn State alumni and fan, he was known for his passionate support of the Nittany Lions, superseded only by his love of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates.”
He shared his love of science in the community, participating as a facilitator, panel member, judge and other roles in a number of events at local high schools and colleges.
“Rob was a gift to the students and to the College,” said Dr. Terry Wolpaw, vice dean for educational affairs. “He loved learning and inspired others to learn as well. He had that special ability to see difficult concepts through the eyes of a new learner. He would then start his teaching at just the right level, gently take hold of his learners and lead them on a smooth journey from the basic to the most complex. He was a gentle man and a gentle teacher whose heart was always reaching out to his students.”
“He demanded excellence from himself and expected the same from his students and colleagues,” Courtney said. “Personally, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interact and work with this truly outstanding teacher, mentor and nationally recognized scientist.”
Michael Chorney, professor of microbiology and of science, engineering, and technology, Penn State Harrisburg wrote the following:
I stayed home today and walked a dusty Milton Hershey field in brilliant sun
And an Arctic wind, my pup’s legs driving us back home to warmth
A thousand snow geese hovered and squawked in response to a passing pickup
And I thought of Rob.
A few times I thought tears were close as I wondered at his hundred T cell facts
And his PowerPoint stick figures admonishing a student to put something or other to memory
My mind ran through the thousand poignant memories burnished by repeated play
My privileged intersection with a uniquely caring, warm and gentle human being
has already been filed under cherish.