UC Berkeley biology professor Thomas Alber dies at 60

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Thomas Alber, a campus molecular and cell biology professor, died March 28 after a five-year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 60.

Alber furthered knowledge of protein interactions, including those associated with tuberculosis and HIV, and developed new computational methods to reveal protein structures. His research earned him an award last year.

In his more than 20 years on campus, Alber influenced many students, including one who recalled the way he treated all of his students as colleagues within the lab.

“(From) the moment they entered the lab and long after they left, he saw them as equals,” said James Holton, a current faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who worked in Alber’s lab as a graduate student.

Holton also remembered Alber as “one of the few people” who would acknowledge his dog’s indirect contributions to research in a scientific journal article.

“We thank R. Rutkowski for peptide synthesis, T. Oas for helpful discussions, P. Fitzgerald for MERLOT programs, and B.R. Marley for collecting porcupine quills,” Alber wrote in the article.

Marley was Alber’s dog, who came home with porcupine quills one day. Alber realized as he was picking them out that they could be used as a source of keratin to compare with another protein, Holton said.

Born in Japan and raised in Southern California, Alber studied chemistry at UC Santa Cruz, where he published his first article in the journal Nature. He went on to receive his doctorate in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981.

Authoring more than 120 scientific publications, Alber continued to work relentlessly on papers, aided by voice recognition technology as his health continued to deteriorate. Six of his papers are still in review to be published posthumously, Holton said.

“Because of his disability, he worked with and helped his postdocs do their own best work by mentoring and coaching,” said Joan Alber, his sister-in-law. “He said it was the most powerful teaching he had ever done.”

UC San Francisco assistant professor James Fraser, who worked in Alber’s lab as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, remembered how the professor had checked in on him and another student via webcam as they crystallized a protein late at night. Alber even drove to the lab to stay up and work with them to determine the structure of the protein, he said.

“It was just one of those experiences where you feel the electricity of discovery and his obvious enthusiasm for what we were doing,” Fraser said.

In January 2013, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences hosted “Alber Fest,” a day filled with talks honoring the professor.

Alber is survived by his three children, Josh, Emily and Mackenzie; his wife, Julie Nye; and his brothers, William, Chad and Don.

A memorial service will be held sometime next month, although a date has yet to be determined.

Contact Heyun Jeong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @heyunjeong.

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