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August 25, 2001

Robert L. Sinsheimer awarded UC Presidential Medal

By Tim Stephens

Robert Sinsheimer
Robert L. Sinsheimer Photo: UC, Santa Barbara Photo Services
Chancellor Emeritus Robert L. Sinsheimer, an internationally recognized biologist, has received the University of California's Presidential Medal for his contributions to knowledge and to higher education.

UC President Richard C. Atkinson presented the medal and an accompanying citation to Sinsheimer at a dinner ceremony August 25 during the UCSC Human Genome Symposium. In presenting the award, Atkinson noted the role Sinsheimer played in initiating the Human Genome Project, his achievements as a biologist, and his leadership of the UCSC campus.

"For your extraordinary contributions to knowledge and to higher education, your eloquent insistence on the ethical responsibilities of scientists, and your exemplary devotion to the highest values of academic life, the University of California is proud to bestow upon you the Presidential Medal," Atkinson said.

The Presidential Medal was established to recognize extraordinary contributions to the University of California or the community of learning. Previous recipients include UCSC Chancellor Emeritus Karl S. Pister.

Sinsheimer served as chancellor of UCSC from 1977 to 1987. He oversaw growth in academic programs and student enrollments at the campus 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.

As a scientist, Sinsheimer made significant breakthroughs in genetic research by artificially creating functional strands of DNA. He was also one of the first scientists to propose and seriously consider that a concerted effort be undertaken to sequence the human genome.

In 1985, Sinsheimer convened a group of eminent scientists at UCSC to discuss the feasibility of sequencing the human genome. This historic workshop planted the idea for what eventually became the Human Genome Project. At the symposium, many of the participants in the 1985 meeting gathered again at UCSC along with other eminent scientists to discuss future directions for research on the human genome.

Sinsheimer's distinguished career as a teacher and administrator included nine years as chairman of the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology. 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.

The citation that accompanied the UC Presidential Medal read in part: "Courageous and decisive leader, you served two great universities with wisdom and distinction and shaped the destiny of the Santa Cruz campus at a turning point in its history; internationally renowned biologist, your brilliant insights have profoundly enriched and illuminated your discipline; statesman of science, your vision of the Human Genome Project was a critical step toward unravelling the strands of life."

Sinsheimer 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. He has received numerous honors and awards, and has authored some 200 publications in his various areas of research interest. His autobiography, The Strands of a Life: The Science of DNA and the Art of Education, was published in 1994.

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