The Viral Information Institute

In Memoriam: Roland Wolkowicz
By Forest Rohwer

In memory of Roland Wolkowicz The evening started at the Smoking Goat, Roland's favorite eatery. After the meal and several bottles of wine we moved to the Bluefoot Bar and Lounge. After the obligate conversation about how it was a shame that the place had been converted from a leather bar to hipster hang-out, we took our drinks to a booth and proceeded to argue about flow cytometers, viruses, and immunology. The entire time Roland's hands were explaining his talking points faster than his mouth. And nothing would get his hands moving faster than bringing up the FACS facility; he loved these machines and the work they could do. All you had to do was mention that microscopy was a better technique and you would be inundated with reasons why flow cytometry was more elegant and generally superior. Roland could not help rising to the FACS-versus-microscopy bait and this time his diatribe left his semi-inebriated audience laughing so hard that glasses were spilled, and bouncers dropped by to see if we were "Okay"?

It was time to leave bar and we stumbled back to Roland's house. Before we could escape in cabs, there was the notorious Roland garden tour. Any party or visit to Roland's house somehow involved the garden. Roland loved his cacti and euphorbia even more than his flow cytometers. He had hundreds of these succulents and other flora. In the middle of the night, Roland told tales of his plants and their lives. There were plans for getting rid of one tree to make space for planters. And there was the passionfruit vine he saved from a mediocre life in a dark space, now thriving. He so earnestly loved talking about those plants that it was hard to exit and get some much-needed sleep.

Even more loved were the viruses. Not the "fake viruses like phage," but the real killers like HIV, Dengue, and Chikungunya. Roland was enamored with the elegance of their overlapping reading frames and polypeptides. And he knew that this elegance was also their weakness: cells did not need to process polypeptides. Roland wanted to kill these killers. Only now, with CoVID-19 sweeping through the world, can the younger people understand how terrifying AIDS was to Roland's generation. And being a gay man made it so much worse. He decided to fight HIV and other viruses. He probed their biology and genomes to identify potential therapeutic targets that could be assayed with his beloved flow cytometers. One of the tragedies of his untimely death was the loss of a great virologist, who could have built the protease screen we so desperately need for SARS-CoV-2.

This exuberant scientist was surprisingly private. Most colleagues did not know he was a talented painter who loved to gamble. There were only brief glimpses of his love for Cameron. He was a bit of a Momma's Boy, the prima donna of the family of four brothers and a doting mother. Anyone who had ever seen Roland and his mother strolling through the SDSU campus, on one of her month-long visits to San Diego, could see immediately how close they were. Roland and his brothers are so alike in personality that it is often hard to tell them apart. It is hard to imagine the devastation of Roland's loss to this joyful family, a pain compounded by CoVID-imposed separation.

Roland's public life centered around his lab and teaching. He worked tirelessly at both, and his students loved him for it. He won teaching awards and the Wolkowicz labbies are a tight-knit group that loved their leader. Even while fighting cancer, his held his lab meetings regularly. Beyond his lab, his greatest legacy may be the thousands of undergraduates who prized his hand-waving, dramatic, and fun lectures on viruses and their cellular hosts.

A message for those close to Roland

Last night, Roland's brother Daniel, a few members of the lab, some close friends, and myself, sat around Roland's garden discussing the complexities of organizing, scheduling and communicating all the arrangements necessary to honor and respect Roland appropriately. Daniel joked that in his Jewish culture, with 2 people there are often 3 opinions - I was glad to see him laugh. You can imagine the difficulty for the Wolkowicz family in deciding the ways in which Roland wanted and should be celebrated, considering the unprecedented nature of the time we are in.

The family has decided many things in the recent hours, and it is understandable that people might want/need different forums to remember Roland, or would like to participate in locations across the world. In order to accommodate these things there will be two days of viewing opportunities with an open casket next week, followed by a more traditional-unconventional service in the form of a zoom/teleconference meeting. We also organized a time with the opportunity to come to his home. As you all know Roland was an artist, and a creator. He was proud of his house, his garden, his paintings, and he wanted this to be cared for and experienced (all details below).

With any of these gatherings and services we want to ensure that social distancing measures are in place, and will arrange for people to help with this - also to follow the guidelines given by state mandate, to prevent the gathering of 50 or more people at one time. For the viewing on Friday and Saturday, there can be no more than 10 people at one time in the 'room' at the mortuary - I didn't say chapel for a reason. :)

Viewing options - All times below are in California, PST (GMT -7hrs).

On Sunday (5/10) at 10am PST (GMT -7hrs) a Zoom teleconference memorial service will take place. There will be a program and people to help translate for those speaking in another language - the service will be roughly 1.5 - 2 hours. The link and details will follow for anyone to attend.

After the service on Sunday we will have an open house at Roland's starting at 2pm @ 3227 Bancroft St., 92104. This will be in the form of an organized walkthrough from the side of the house through the garden, into the home, and out through the front door. Organization of this will have to be in the form of a line and people will have to wait as people walk through maintaining distance.

Given CoVID, and in attempts to separate, organize and clarify details, please RSVP to me with your name and letting me know if you and other members of your family/friends would like to attend a viewing with your preference of option 1 - 4 from above. I will then respond with a confirmation of location, date and more specific time range. Please allow time for my response as I'm sure this will be a tedious process, but it will hopefully be the best way to stay organized, safe/healthy and legal. :)

I will also send this information soon to other people and emailing lists but for right now we are reaching out to those closest to Roland. Stay tuned for a follow up email regarding the Zoom service on Sunday (this may take a few more days to organize) with details that can be shared broadly. Please feel free to ask me any questions in the meantime.

Finally, I want to say that the outpouring of love for Roland thus far has been remarkable and has reminded the family truly how vast his influence spread and how many people he touched. Please send images, photos, a story or quote to Susan Kaiser if you haven't already - skaiser52@gmail.com.

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Rohwer Laboratory, San Diego State University.

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Contact Info
Gina Spidel
E-mail: sdsuvii.info@gmail.com