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Vision researcher Geoffrey Owen named dean of biological sciences in UC Berkeley's College of Letters & Science
05 June 2002

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Berkeley - W. Geoffrey Owen, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, has been named dean of the Biological Sciences Division in the College of Letters & Science. He will oversee the largest concentration of biology researchers and teachers on campus.


Paul Ludden
W. Geoffrey Owen
Credit: Noah Berger

Owen, 60, will assume the position July 1, taking the reins from Paul Licht, who held the post for eight years. Licht, professor of integrative biology, will take a year's sabbatical before returning to the faculty.

"Geoff Owen was clearly everyone's choice for the job," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, in announcing Owen's appointment on June 5. "His leadership will be key to our continuing excellence in the biological sciences, one of Berkeley's great strengths. He also will be an important player in moving our Health Sciences Initiative forward."

With about 105 faculty members in two departments - integrative biology and molecular and cell biology - the division houses researchers studying everything from entire organisms to the human genome. It graduates some 800 students each year who embark on careers in the health sciences, veterinary medicine, biotechnology, environmental science and academia.

Owen, whose research involves how the visual system makes sense of the world around us, expects to spend much of his time raising funds to expand and improve biological research on campus. Several large research initiatives have been launched on campus within the last few years, including the Health Sciences Initiative to bolster collaboration among campus departments, and the state-funded Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, or QB3, a partnership with the Santa Cruz and San Francisco campuses to integrate physical, mathematical and engineering sciences to create powerful new techniques for attacking problems in biology.

Both initiatives need new or renovated buildings into which researchers can expand, and donors to help build them. Owen wants to put equal effort into finding funding for new research programs in emerging areas of science.

"The next few years are going to be difficult because of state budget cuts, which come at a time when the importance of biology continues to grow," he said. "If Berkeley is going to remain competitive, we are going to have to mine more extramural sources of money."

One such program in the works at UC Berkeley is the Center for Evolutionary Genomics and Development, a collaboration between evolutionary biologists in the Department of Integrative Biology and genome researchers in the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology. Scientists hope that by correlating evolutionary changes in species with changes in the genome, they can learn more about both evolution and the way genes work.

"We want to look at subtle changes in morphology - changes in the shape of an organism - and determine how they are related to changes in the genetic code," Owen said.

He also plans to build up areas that have languished as scientists converged on the hot areas of molecular biology and genetics. One such area is the study of systems - large groups of cells or organs, like the central nervous system and the brain, or the hormonal system - that used to fall under the purview of physiology or endocrinology. The campus's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute is one highly successful example of a center devoted to a system - in that case, the central nervous system - and Owen hopes to encourage the development of others.

Born in 1942 in Bristol, England, Owen received his B.Sc. in physics in 1965 and his PhD in applied optics in 1970 from the University of London. His interest in optics was fueled by an interest in photography and art, but he soon realized that optical design was being overtaken by computer automation, becoming more of a technology than a science. In an effort to change fields, he moved to the United States in 1970 to work as a postdoc at the Jules Stein Eye Institute in Los Angeles.

After a further postdoctoral stint at UC San Francisco, he joined the faculty of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, spent two years as a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge in England, and finally settled in as a biophysicist and assistant professor at UC Berkeley in 1980. Ironically, it was only in 1998 that he obtained a degree in biology, when the University of London awarded him a Doctor of Science degree for distinguished research in neurophysiology and biophysics.

Much of Owen's biophysics research centers around the retina's photoreceptors, the cells that absorb light and provide input to the other cells of the retina and the brain, where the visual world is interpreted.

Owen became chair of the Department of Biophysics & Medical Physics in 1987 until it was dissolved in 1989 and merged with the newly formed Department of Molecular & Cell Biology. Within that department he served as head of the Division of Biophysics & Cell Physiology until 1990, when he joined the Division of Neurobiology. He served as head of that division from 1998 until 2001, when he became chair of the department.

As he assumes the position of dean, he plans to close down his laboratory because he feels he has completed the laboratory phase of his research. Having discovered how retinal cells identify and emphasize what is perceptually important in an image, and how they define visual objects and treat them as separate elements of an image, he now wants to concentrate on theory and other, more philosophical questions.

"I think sensory systems in general may use the same principles we've discovered for the retina," he said. "I'm now planning to see if the theory applies to the auditory system, which is able to pick out the sound of a bell from the din just as easily as our eyes pick out a familiar face from the crowd."

Owen's research, plus his new responsibilities as dean - administration, fund raising and program development - promise to keep him busy. But he is energized by what brought him to UC Berkeley 22 years ago.

"What Berkeley offers is a tremendous breadth of biology and a world-class faculty," Owen said. "Our faculty really are tops; that's why people come here."

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