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09/18/2009 - Susan F. Gurley Chair in Theoretical Physics and Biology Established at KITP

(Originally published by the University of California, Santa Barbara)

September 18. 2009

Gus Gurley, co-founder of Santa Barbara based Digital Instruments (DI), has endowed a chair at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). The Susan F. Gurley Chair in Theoretical Physics and Biology honors the entrepreneur’s mother. The first holder of the endowed chair is KITP permanent member Boris Shraiman.

David Gross, KITP Director, said, “I cannot emphasize enough how crucial Gus’s gift is to our pioneering efforts to give direction to the newly emerging field of theoretical (or quantitative) biology.”

Gus GurleyGus Gurley, co-founder of Santa Barbara based Digital Instruments (DI)(Courtesy: UCSB)

The KITP runs scientific programs and conferences for the best scientists from around the world in order to address, in sustained fashion, edge research issues.

“The quality of our programming depends on the quality of our permanent members,” said Gross, “because our permanent members shape the KITP programming experience, which in turn shapes the research direction of a given field globally. And the quality of our permanent members depends on our ability to attract the very best scientists in a given area to this position. 

“The Susan F. Gurley Chair is a powerful incentive that enables us to draw to the KITP leading scientific talent at the interface between physics and biology. Boris Shraiman is just such a scientist. He is immensely creative—one of the deepest thinking and most theoretically skilled of the leaders in this dynamic new field. His appointment sets a high standard for those who will hold this chair in years to come.

“Heartfelt thanks, to you, Gus Gurley, for having the perspicacity to see how very important endowing this chair is for the future vigor of our research efforts in theoretical biology,” said Gross. “You have been a remarkable friend to the KITP.  I treasure our long interaction and many conversations because your experience developing technology at the juncture of biology and physics makes you an expert able to offer invaluable insight and advice to the KITP as we develop what will likely prove to be a leading interdisciplinary direction for 21st-century science. You are as stimulating a conversant, as you are generous a supporter.”

John “Gus” Gurley graduated from UCSB with a 1978 bachelor’s degree in physics and a 1983 master’s degree in scientific instrumentation. The company Digital Instruments that he co-founded in 1987 with then UCSB physics professor Virgil Elings aimed to make the power of scanning probe microscopy readily available to scientists and engineers--enabling them to image and explore nanoscale features and structures unseen heretofore. The same year that they founded the company, they constructed and shipped the first commercially successful scanning tunneling microscope—the NanoScope.

Boris ShraimanBoris Shraiman is KITP's first Susan F. Gurley Chair in Theoretical Physics and Biology. (Courtesy: UCSB)

Gurley designed the NanoScope and led the effort to develop its software.  Thereafter he managed DI’s new product development. He is one of the world’s authorities on scanning-probe control systems.

DI merged with Veeco Instruments in 1998. Since then Gurley has been exploring interests in systems neuroscience and neural networking.

In 2004 Gurley funded Distinguished Fellows in Biophysics, a three-year effort at KITP that was designed to attract and enable distinguished scientists to come for sustained visits and participation in KITP programming. He has also supported a UCSB lecture series in neuroscience.

A member of the KITP Director’s Council (made up of leaders in fields other than physics, but with an interest in physics, who meet several times a year to advise the Director), Gurley was appointed a KITP Senior Fellow in 2007 “in recognition of his pivotal role in helping to establish the new field of theoretical biology at the KITP.”

UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang emphasized Gurley’s contribution in terms of support for the cultivation of top-notch talent at UCSB: “The Susan F. Gurley Chair will strengthen our tradition of excellence and will advance our research leadership in the field of theoretical biology. This special endowment enhances the stature of our campus and will help us continue to attract and retain top faculty and advance the frontiers of this important field. Thank you, Gus Gurley, for your extraordinary commitment to the future of scientific excellence at UC Santa Barbara.”

Earnings on the endowment for the Susan F. Gurley Chair will provide discretionary funds to enable its holder to support new initiatives in conjunction with the holder’s research initiatives and allied KITP programming, as well as with related public outreach efforts. The Chair, in other worlds, provides its holder with the means to be more creative, imaginative, and flexible, and therefore more productive.

Shraiman said, “This chair is not for me, but for the KITP.  It is a real honor to be given the opportunity to interpret what the interface between theoretical physics and biology might be. I am not unaware of the great responsibility signified by the creation of this chair. KITP programming can appreciably affect the way the interface between theoretical physics and biology evolves.”

Originally a condensed matter physicist, Shraiman made fundamental contributions to the theory of turbulence, chaos, pattern formation, magnetism and superconductivity, before turning in recent years to biophysics.

His life-sciences-oriented research of late has focused on fundamental issues in morphogenesis (such as the role of intercellular interactions in regulation of growth) and in population genetics (the effect of genetic interactions on the dynamics of natural selection).

Shraiman joined the KITP as permanent member in July of 2004.  He has been instrumental in the growth of its biologically related programs, which now account for some 15 to 20 percent of KITP activities.  His efforts have generated new forms of support for the Institute with the addition of grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and from private foundations, such as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, that focus support on biologically related endeavors. KITP now runs two to three programs a year on biological topics that attract annually hundreds of new visitors to the Institute and the UCSB campus.

At KITP ceremonies on Sept. 18, 2009, acknowledging the creation of the new Susan F. Gurley Chair in Theoretical Physics and Biology, Shraiman gave an inaugural lecture “Adventures at the Edge of Physics.”

Original press release

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