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Human Genome: A Public Forum at UCSC


Robert L. Sinsheimer, Ph.D.
Chancellor Emeritus, Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biology,
University of California, Santa Cruz

Robert L. Sinsheimer, Ph.D., served as chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, from 1977 to 1987. A scientist of international distinction, he made significant breakthroughs in the field of genetic research by artificially creating functional strands of DNA, the universal genetic material in all forms of life. He was also one of the first scientists to propose and seriously consider that a concerted effort be undertaken to sequence the human genome. His distinguished career as a teacher and administrator included nine years as chairman of the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology.

Sinsheimer was born in Washington, D.C., and attended high school in Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree in quantitative biology and his M.S. and Ph.D. in biophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He taught briefly at MIT before moving to Iowa State College in 1949, where he was a professor of biophysics. In 1957, he accepted the post of professor of biophysics at Caltech, where he worked for the next 20 years before accepting the post of chancellor at UC Santa Cruz.

During Sinsheimer's time at Caltech, he and his colleagues succeeded in isolating, purifying, and finally replicating synthetically the DNA of the virus Phi X 174. This feat, called at the time "the closest anyone has yet come to creating life in the laboratory," earned him international acclaim as a pioneer in nucleic acid research. He was named California Scientist of the Year in 1968 and was awarded the Beijerinck Virology Medal by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and Letters in 1969.

In 1985, while chancellor of UCSC, Sinsheimer convened a group of eminent scientists to discuss the feasibility of sequencing the human genome. This historic workshop planted the idea for what eventually became the Human Genome Project, an international effort to decipher the entire set of genetic instructions for human life.

Sinsheimer has also been an outspoken advocate of science's accountability to society. As early as the mid-1960s, he came to realize that advances in genetics would have profound social consequences. When recombinant DNA technology arose in the 1970s, giving scientists the ability to splice together genetic material from different organisms, he used his position as an acknowledged authority in the field to warn of potential hazards. And when he proposed sequencing the human genome, he hoped at the same time to focus attention on the social and ethical concerns such a project would inevitably raise.

As chancellor of UCSC, Sinsheimer oversaw growth in academic programs and student enrollments during an era of tight educational budgets. A new undergraduate major in computer engineering was established, and graduate enrollments doubled from 350 to 700. New graduate programs and important new research activities were developed during his tenure, including major expansions in linguistics and high-energy physics and new research programs in seismology, agroecology, and applied economics. Sinsheimer was also involved in writing a new academic plan for the campus.

After his tenure at UCSC, Sinsheimer joined the faculty at UC Santa Barbara as a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. Officially retired since 1990, he is still active in laboratory research, working with associate professor of biology Michael Mahan and others. In 1999, he took part in a major discovery by Mahan's team that may lead to new drugs and vaccines for fighting bacterial infections. The researchers discovered a gene in salmonella bacteria that orchestrates the activity of dozens of other genes needed to establish an infection.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Sinsheimer served on the Editorial Board of its journal (Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences) and is a member of its Institute of Medicine. He was chairman of the Editorial Board from 1972 to 1981. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also served as president of the Biophysical Society, a member of the U.S. National Committee for the International Union of Biochemistry, and a member of the scientific advisory board of the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research. He holds honorary Sc.D. degrees from St. Olaf College and from Northwestern University. He has authored some 200 publications in his various areas of research interest, as well as an autobiography, The Strands of a Life: The Science of DNA and the Art of Education, published in 1994.

Sinsheimer currently lives in Santa Barbara with his wife Karen. He has three children, one of whom is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz.


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