Spellbinding Science with the Amazing Timothy Steele

Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Timothy Steele, Ph.D., discovered the wonder of microbiology. It cast a spell on him that was so powerful it would shape his life’s trajectory. 

He was hooked even after he unwisely looked at the sun with a microscope he received as a kid. “I scorched the back of my brain,” he jokes. The magic multiplied during his Ph.D. program at Indiana University, which combined microbiology and immunology. 

“There are so many things we can do with immunology and the immune system in treating disease,” he says. “It has such an elegant way of functioning. It’s amazing, and I like amazing, whether in the lab or the classroom.” 

He landed his first full-time teaching role in the early 1990s at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

“I specifically remember walking to my first class and thinking, ‘I have not been trained for this!’” he recalls. “Then I realized I was getting paid to talk about what I’m most interested in: microbiology and immunology. Hearing students’ questions and figuring out better ways to teach are also wonderful.” 

After 24 years and 11 months as a DMU professor, Steele will take his final bow on June 30. In addition to teaching, he chaired the microbiology and immunology department for about 17 years. “I always wanted to teach at a medical school. I love to know what the medical students know while not having to do what they do. It’s very rewarding,” he says. 

His tenure at DMU began memorably in 1999 with an interview with Bryan Larsen, Ph.D., then-dean of university research. A blizzard had shut down the campus. At the same time, a truck arrived with a delivery of laboratory rats. Steele found himself helping Larsen unload the animals. Later, while the two had lunch downtown, a snowplow buried Larsen’s car, so Steele helped excavate the vehicle. 

“And I still came to DMU!” he says. 

Steele has enjoyed DMU’s culture, students and colleagues, including his mentor, the late Thomas Mueller, Ph.D., chair of microbiology and immunology from 1995 to 2003. Steele reveled in his research endeavors, including work on natural killer leukemia cells, statin drugs and immunotherapy models. 

He also credits the university for saving his life: When he learned DMU’s Wellness Pays program offers incentives to employees for activities such as exercising and getting annual physicals, he made an appointment — and discovered he had advanced colon cancer. Ken Reed, D.O., a gastroenterologist, surgeon and then-dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, performed his surgery. 

“I owe DMU a lot,” Steele says. “It’s easy to give back to a university that’s done so much for you.” 

He has observed numerous changes at DMU during his tenure, and not just in its facilities and location. “We have highly qualified clinicians and basic sciences faculty who are receiving more grants and publishing more, and we have great leadership,” he says. “You’re working for and with some very sharp people here, and our students are real go-getters.” 

Steele is humble about the impact he’s had on thousands of DMU students over the years, but he can’t help but share one student review that still tickles him: “I love how he teaches, but that guy talks faster than DNA replicates.” 

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