When internationally renowned biologist Robert Sinsheimer took the job of chancellor at UC Santa Cruz in 1977, admissions applications were dropping and rumors were flying that the campus was going to close.
Above: A BBC crew films a documentary on the Genome Project in 1988. At left is Robert Sinsheimer, along with (left to right) biology professors Robert Edgar, Harry Noller, and Robert Ludwig.With his adventurous mind, his love for the sciences, and his direct and sometimes brash way of expressing himself, Sinsheimer, who died in April at 97, made a big impression from the start. To this day, visitors and students can see the signs of his influence on campus, from Sinsheimer Labs on Science Hill to the prestigious and groundbreaking Genomics Institute.
“Sinsheimer left an indelible mark on UC Santa Cruz and in the greater scientific world,” UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal said shortly after Sinsheimer passed away this year. “He was a tireless advocate for UC Santa Cruz and was widely respected by the campus community.”
A ’crazy’ question
When referring to the beginnings of the Human Genome Project at UC Santa Cruz, the campus’s scientific community looks to 1985, when Sinsheimer convened a distinguished group of scientists to discuss the feasibility of a seemingly far-fetched idea—mapping the complete set of DNA instructions for the making of a species.
At the time, Sinsheimer predicted that such a genome project would have “major medical implications” and lasting influence, while placing UC Santa Cruz at the forefront of biological research.
“Bob characterized the UC Santa Cruz spirit: He was never afraid to ask the big questions,” said David Haussler, distinguished professor of molecular engineering and scientific director of the Genomics Institute. “When he convened the world’s experts to determine if it would be possible to read the entire human genome sequence, most of his colleagues thought this was so big, it was actually a crazy question.”
This skepticism was not surprising, considering that the human genetic code is millions of times larger than what was being read in laboratories at the time, Haussler continued. “But several of the best and brightest came to UC Santa Cruz to examine this question, and the surprising answer was ‘yes.’ Fifteen years later we had the first draft.”
More controversially, Sinsheimer also initiated a dramatic campus reorganization that scaled back the role of UC Santa Cruz’s colleges in the campus’s academic development. During his tenure, for example, hiring decisions and the authority to set curriculum were removed away from the colleges.
To some, the reorganization was a welcome sign of progress, allowing the campus to focus more forcefully on research and increase its prestige among the other UCs; to critics, it amounted to a “watering down” of UC Santa Cruz’s original mission to provide a world-class education in a small and intimate liberal arts setting and brought it closer to the giant research universities its founders were reacting against.
For his part, Sinsheimer told an interviewer that he believed UC Santa Cruz didn’t have the financial resources to run the colleges the way the founders envisioned them. He was also concerned about lingering conflicts between the colleges and what were called boards of studies regarding hiring and tenure decisions. He likened this “standoff” to a constant “tug-of-war” that threatened to harm UC Santa Cruz’s reputation.
“It was essential to improve the academic standing of the campus,” said Sinsheimer during an extensive interview. “… I think some people felt that I was antithetic to the colleges, and I wasn’t antithetic to the colleges. It was that a choice had to be made and I had to go one way or the other, and I chose the way that made sense to me.”
Beginnings of a brilliant career
When he was only 16, Sinsheimer, a native of Washington, D.C., enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He graduated in 1941. During World War II, Sinsheimer worked on aircraft radar for MIT. In 1957, he became a professor of biophysics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he worked for two decades before taking the chancellor job at UC Santa Cruz.
At the time, he was 57, and “at a point where you’ve got enough time to do one more major thing in your career,” Sinsheimer told interviewer Randall Jarrell in 1991. “You don’t want to put it off much longer than that .…”
Sinsheimer was familiar with the campus because his daughter, Kathy Sinsheimer, had attended UC Santa Cruz in the early ‘70s. Nevertheless, the invitation to apply for the job was “quite out of the blue,” he recalled.
Immediately, Sinsheimer saw potential. “In a growing university, you can impress some new concepts and programs on it. Also at this time, because of my concern with bioethics and with the social impacts of science, I’d come to feel that we had a serious problem—and we still do, it’s even worse—in that we have a scientifically illiterate populace.
“I felt that some serious efforts were needed to develop programs that would provide some kind of background for the general student—not the Caltech kind of student, other students,” Sinsheimer continued.
Large potential, big problems
But when he got to UC Santa Cruz, several faculty members told him that the enrollment issue was becoming “dire.” Sinsheimer, after conversing with students, parents, and faculty, as well as members of the greater Santa Cruz community, came to believe that UC Santa Cruz’s reputation, rightly or wrongly, had taken a major hit after an initial glory period, when it received national press for its high standards, its human scale, and, in Sinsheimer’s words, a private school atmosphere “with the imprimatur of a great public research institution.”
He believed that its once prestigious reputation had given way to the popular notion that UC Santa Cruz was “a hippie school, its reputation tarnished by the Vietnam War, negative publicity engendered by the campus youth culture, and increasingly strained town-gown relations with the Santa Cruz community.”
Sinsheimer worked hard to change the structure of UC Santa Cruz, hoping that the campus’s image would be elevated as a result.
Even at a time when budgets were tight throughout the UC system, he oversaw major growth in academic programs at UC Santa Cruz, and was heartened to see that more students were seeking out the campus.
“In 1984, application for enrollment at UC Santa Cruz turned upward, and again, sharply, in 1985,” he observed in his memoir, Strands of a Life. “The bad image of the campus was finally behind us.”
During his tenure, a new undergraduate major in computer engineering came online, and graduate enrollments doubled. Under him, the campus expanded linguistics, high-energy physics, and new research programs in seismology, agroecology, and applied economics.
Slugging it out with a sea lion
Fans of UC Santa Cruz’s quirky mascot, Sammy the Slug, remember Robert Sinsheimer’s name because of his spirited, if short-lived, opposition to the mascot in the mid-1980s.
As is well known, I would prefer a mascot with more spirit and vigor. However, the students are entitled to a mascot they desire and with which they can identify. I also suggest that it would be most desirable for our biological scientists to begin a program of genetic engineering research upon the slug, ‘to improve the breed.’ The potential seems endless.
It all started when Sinsheimer brought the campus into the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) as a Division III school for the first time. UC Santa Cruz had unofficial sports “clubs” but no NCAA teams up to then.
NCAA Division III–affiliated colleges were expected to have an official mascot. In 1981, a group of student athletes supported the sea lion; Sinsheimer backed their choice. And yet the slug lived on in the hearts and minds of students who wanted a more surprising and nontraditioanl mascot. “Slime ‘em!” and “Go, Slugs!” were common cheers at sports games.
In 1986, the newly formed Student Union Assembly voted to put the mascot issue on a campuswide ballot measure. The students had spoken; the banana slug easily defeated the sea lion at the polls.
Initially, Sinsheimer, in spite of the nonbinding ballot measure results, could not work up enthusiasm for the slug.
Later on, Sinsheimer went along with the vote, though he greeted the news with a characteristically tongue-in-cheek statement:
“As is well known, I would prefer a mascot with more spirit and vigor. However, the students are entitled to a mascot they desire and with which they can identify,” Sinsheimer wrote. “I also suggest that it would be most desirable for our biological scientists to begin a program of genetic engineering research upon the slug, ‘to improve the breed.’ The potential seems endless.”
Easing into a new life
Sinsheimer retired from UC Santa Cruz in 1987. Donor Arthur Graham, along with his wife, Carol, chose to honor him that year by establishing the Robert L. Sinsheimer Professor of Molecular Biology Chair to support teaching and research in molecular biology. Graham, a longtime campus benefactor, was Sinsheimer’s roommate at MIT. Distinguished professor
Harry Noller, director of the Center for Molecular Biology of RNA and winner of a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2016, holds the chair.
After his retirement, Sinsheimer moved to Santa Barbara with his wife, Karen. Karen Sinsheimer served as curator of photography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art until her death in 2015. Sinsheimer became a professor in the UC Santa Barbara Biology Department, then joined the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology as emeritus professor.
But Sinsheimer took some time to savor his years at UC Santa Cruz before heading off into this new chapter.
In his last days as chancellor here, “There were the accustomed bittersweet farewell dinners and events,” he recalled later on. “Many people seemed genuinely sorry to see us leave, and I was deeply touched.”
As a parting gift, Karen Sinsheimer was named “Woman of the Year” by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce. Like her husband, she had left a lasting mark on the campus and the Santa Cruz community. She was hailed as one of the “great leading ladies” of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, serving as the founding board president for the festival. Later, she served on the Santa Cruz Shakespeare board.
The Sinsheimers appreciated the good wishes of their friends and colleagues as they prepared for their big move.
“Even faculty and community people with whom I had been much at odds seemed to mellow and sheathe their swords and wish us well as the time drew near,” Sinsheimer recalled. “But it was time to go. Science beckoned.”