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Wright remembered for her warmth, brilliance and humility

Wright lost a long battle with breast cancer just weeks after stepping down as dean of the Graduate School. Wright was 56.
Wright lost a long battle with breast cancer just weeks after stepping down as dean of the Graduate School. Wright was 56.

Former Graduate School Dean Jo Rae Wright did not let illness get in the way of research.

Wright continued to draw up grants for her lab even after stepping down from her duties as dean and vice provost for graduate education in October 2011 after her health worsened. Despite a long battle with breast cancer, her concern for others always overshadowed her own health complications. Wright, who died last week at age 56, remained at Duke as a both professor and researcher after leaving her position as dean, striving to ensure that her condition did not stall other people’s education or careers.

“She continued to give 200 percent to her work at the Graduate School and to her lab for a very long time,” said Blanche Capel, professor of cell biology and a close friend to Wright. “It was astonishing.”

Wright arrived at Duke in 1993 as an associate professor, and her influence has rippled throughout the medical field ever since.

Wright was awarded Duke’s Excellence in Basic Science Teaching Award twice prior to becoming Graduate School dean in 2006. For her work as a cell biologist, Wright was awarded the American Physiological Society’s Walter B. Cannon Award for lifetime achievement in 2005. In 2008, she was the first Ph.D. to become president of the American Thoracic Society, which is typically led by clinical physicians.

Wright was known by many as a valuable leader, mentor, professor and friend. She was incredibly generous, said Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for research at the School of Medicine.

“She was always asking how I was doing, even when she wasn’t well,” Kornbluth said.

A friend to all

Capel arrived at Duke the same year as Wright. They had adjoining research labs for 10 years, and the two quickly became close friends. Capel shared Wright’s love of the beach, shoes, shopping and a good India Pale Ale beer.

Capel said Wright was a thoughtful listener and level-headed—she was able to solve any problem, whether it involved family, students, coworkers or a stubborn piece of lab machinery. She was respectful but held others accountable.

“[Wright] was always fair with people, even-handed and kind, but her goal was to give the best advice,” Capel said. “She wanted to be nice, but she didn’t let people get away with letting her down.”

Although she did not have many close blood relatives, Wright considered many to be her family. The scientist had a particularly tight-knit relationship with her goddaughter, Abby Reynolds, who is a pharmacist in Raleigh, N.C. Reynolds remembers her godmother as warm, fun-loving and wickedly funny.

“Even until the end, she maintained that sense of humor and could come back with a one-line zinger,” Reynolds said. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to be just like her when I grow up.’”

Reynolds added that Wright was able to find friends anywhere—scuba diving in the Cayman Islands, in a gym class or at a Duke basketball game. Everyone loved to be around her, in and outside the workplace.

About 20 years ago, Wright befriended Patty Saylor, who is married to Dan Kiehart, professor of biology and chair of the biology department. The two lived several houses apart, and became close when Wright recognized her colleague’s name on the mailbox and introduced herself. Saylor said Wright was an excellent cook, and they often ate dinner together.

“She was the kind of friend who made me feel like I won the lottery,” Saylor said. “She would show you how you could do something even if you thought you couldn’t.”

Saylor, who now cares for Wright’s dog, Horton, said it was clear that Wright was well-respected in her profession. It seemed that every physician who cared for Wright throughout her illness was one of her former students.

An influential scientist

Wright was particularly influential in cell biology research, focusing on a lung fluid called pulmonary surfactant. Before Wright’s research, many thought surfactant’s only purpose was to prevent the lung from collapsing, said Dr. Monica Kraft, director of the Duke Asthma, Allergy and Airway Center. Wright discovered that surfactant signals the immune system to protect the lungs from pathogens in the air and is helpful in researching asthma and lung disease.

“We now have an understanding of all the processes of how the human body keeps the lungs intact,” said Kraft, who will be continuing some of Wright’s research.

Kraft added that Wright was passionate about research—and not just her own—because new ideas excited her.

Kornbluth said Wright was realistic and logical as a scientist and a deep thinker. In discussions, she would often pause to develop a well-thought statement. Wright had a steady moral compass and would always argue for what was right, even if it meant going against a colleague.

“She was incredibly well-liked by everybody, but she was not a pushover,” Kornbluth said. “She had a very clear vision of the way things would be, and she had a tough backbone.”

Wright was also a generous teacher and leader, who was always explaining her decisions and reasoning, said Dr. Randy Curtis, professor at the University of Washington, who worked with Wright for several years at the American Thoracic Society. He said she once took him on a tour of the Duke Lemur Center, where someone told him that Wright, as the Graduate School dean, single-handedly saved the center when it was in danger of losing funding.

“She’s so modest,” Curtis said. “She was a very ambitious person, but her ambition was centered on what she could accomplish and not whether she got credit.”

Wright’s colleagues and the Duke community are also working to preserve her legacy. Kornbluth noted that Wright’s friends and colleagues are raising money for a new space in her memory at the new School of Medicine Learning Center. And in December, the University established the Jo Rae Wright Fellowship for Outstanding Women in Science, which will recognize two female Ph.D. students—one from the biomedical sciences and one from the natural sciences.

A date and location for a memorial service to honor Wright had not been set as of Monday.

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