For Mannie Liscum, thinking is a privilege, and his job gives him the chance to be fascinated by human’s capacity to conceptualize and learn new things.
“It’s my goal to use as much of the stuff between my ears as I can while I’m here,” said the Bond LSC primary investigator. “And that’s what drives a lot of people into science.”
Along with that internal tick to learn, he’s inspired by the scientific pursuit to better understand the world. He said it’s easy to see things and from one mindset, but in reality, it’s always more complicated, and his young experiences taught him that.
“As you learn more and mature more, in terms of knowledge, you become more and more open all the time and you become less and less closed off and afraid of change and things that you aren’t familiar with,” he said.
Travel is an important part of advancing this understanding, particularly through trips that make him think more deeply about important topics.
A few years ago, he went to a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, and took the opportunity to travel to Moscow and Smolensk, along with Auschwitz. Another trip that deeply affected him was a civil rights tour throughout the southern U.S. states.
“I thought I was pretty open-mind, but I realized I still had a lot to learn and how much courage and strength minority populations in this country have and have had,” he said. “It’s an experience everyone should have. As a non-Jew, non-persecuted person, I can only understand those situations so much until I stand on those grounds.”
Growing up on a farm in upstate New York, he always thought the vet that came to look at the cows had the coolest job. He started his undergrad at State University of New York at Plattsburgh looking into veterinary medicine, but his school didn’t have it, so he tackled pre-med. After pushing through various science courses, he finally found his passion during one particular semester while he and 14 other students lived on-site at a research institute learning anything “from microscopy to animal cell culture, plant tissue culture, molecular biology, immunology to virology.”
He said they lived and breathed science during that semester, and he absolutely loved it. This led him down a path of plant biology research. Though he didn’t get the best grades or the best GRE score, he was determined to forge his own path. He saw rejections and received unkind words, but it taught him that students are human beings who deserve respect, even if they aren’t right for a certain program.
“I love being able to couple an idea with evidence to then drive forward a new idea,” he said.
Liscum eventually ended up at Ohio State University for his graduate degree after a professor there advocated for him to be in the program.
“I finished my Ph.D. in four years and I published eight publications when I was a graduate student,” he said. “So, I had a successful graduate career. It was different than exams and classes, and for me, it was an experience I can thrive in, whereas the classroom experience was not my strength, which again, gives me a different perspective when I’m trying to teach.”
After his graduate degree, he went onto his postdoctoral position at Stanford, and before he had finished that program received a job offer at MU. That was 24 years ago, and since that time, he said he’s had the privilege of working with phenomenal students and colleagues and has grown to love Columbia.
His thirst for knowledge doesn’t only exist in the scientific framework. Liscum is interested in a variety of topics and seeks knowledge and perspective through literature. This year, he’s already read 44 books in pursuit of his goal of 52, one book a week. He said he still struggles with English, as he did growing up, but the more he pushes through the better he gets at it. That’s a philosophy he’s often lived by.
Amid his search for knowledge, Liscum enjoys politics, history, cooking, films, traveling and abnormal art.
Every October for the last 15 years, Mannie Liscum spends hours each night carving pumpkins. These aren’t your regular small, happy face pumpkins though. He carves an astonishingly intricate pumpkin each day of the month. What began as portraits of his kids in pumpkin form, turned into a life-long, stress-relieving hobby.
In the past quarter-century, he’s seen Columbia grow by 25,000 people, bring in new restaurants and events, and expand its eclectic vibe. He also loves its position in the world, seeing it as a great location to travel across the country and globe. His kids are in Colorado and Georgia, which allows him to drive to visit them both.
At the end of the day, Liscum is driven by connection – to people, to his community, to his research and his opportunity to keep on learning.
“The more we engage, the better we become as a species,” he said. “That’s how I see life.”