Memorial Celebration for Robert Sinsheimer (1920-2017)

MCDB is sad to announce the passing of MCDB Emeritus Professor Robert Sinsheimer

Bob was one of the early pioneers of molecular biology, led the Biology division at Cal Tech for many years, served as Chancellor of U.C. Santa Cruz, and was a valued colleague and friend here at MCDB for several decades.

Bob earned his undergraduate degree at MIT, and during the war years he worked at MIT's Radiation Lab on the development of airborne radar, and flew out of air bases testing prototype radars. For his graduate work at MIT he decided to focus on nucleic acids, and he received his Ph.D. in Biophysics at MIT in 1948. He was an Assistant Professor in the Physics department at Iowa State where he began studying the bacteriophage ΦX 174, as well as Tobacco Mosaic Virus, showing that the RNA genome of a single TMV virus particle was a single molecule. He was recruited to the Biology department at Cal Tech in 1957, where he did pioneering studies using ΦX 174, such as demonstrating that the ΦX genome in the viral particle was single stranded (publishing this work in the very first issue of Journal of Molecular Biology), that the phage genome was a circular molecule of DNA, and that upon infection the replicative form of the DNA was double-stranded, and that in vitro-synthesized viral DNA was infectious. He served as the chairman of Cal Tech Biology for many years, was California Scientist of the Year in 1968, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and was one of the main participants in the discussions of the safety of the newly developed recombinant DNA techniques in the mid-1970s.

Bob was looking for new challenges, and in 1977 was appointed Chancellor of UC Santa Cruz. While there he worked diligently to raise the campus' profile, especially in the sciences. There was a world-class astronomy group, and Bob was instrumental in UCSC participation in the Hubble Space Telescope project and the Keck telescope project. Having become familiar with large-scale astronomy projects, he wondered whether there were questions in biology that hadn't been addressed simply because biologists weren't accustomed to thinking at such large (financial) scales. He wondered if obtaining the sequence of the human genome was such a large-scale project that could be addressed. He convened a meeting of experts in the field, and at the end of the meeting the general consensus was that in fact with current technology and expected development of new technology obtaining the sequence of the human genome, while expensive, was technologically feasible. This led eventually to the establishment of the Human Genome Project.

After 10 years as chancellor, Bob and his wife Karen came to Santa Barbara in 1988. Karen served as Curator of Photography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art until her recent death. Bob became a Professor in the UCSB Biology Department, and subsequently joined the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology as Emeritus Professor on its creation. Bob was awarded the University of California Presidential Medal in 2001 for his contributions to knowledge and higher education. Here at UCSB he taught Biochemistry, and his research efforts focused for a time on imaging DNA using atomic force microscopy. He subsequently started a long-term productive collaboration with MCDB Professor Michael Mahan, studying the human bacterial pathogen Salmonella enterica. Bob continued to participate in the Mahan lab research up until just a few weeks ago.

In addition to his science, Bob was incredibly widely read, with an astonishing range of interests, so every conversation with him was fun, exciting and illuminating. He was an avid Dodgers fan, fierce chess player, and talented photographer as well. He had many friends here at UCSB, all of whom feel honored and lucky to have known him.

Bob is survived by his son Roger and daughters Kathy and Lois, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The family and MCDB organized a Memorial Remembrance celebrating Bob’s life and contributions. It took place on July 15, 2017. The contents of that event are being shared through this web site.