‘A brilliant scientist’: Professor Emeritus of environmental science, policy and management George Oster dies at 77

George Oster, campus professor emeritus of environmental science, policy and management and a groundbreaking researcher in the study of mathematical biology, died April 15. He was 77.

Oster died after a long-term struggle with Lewy body Parkinson’s disease, according to Alex Mogilner, a professor of biology at New York University and Oster’s former postdoctoral student.

Oster was always attracted to science’s most fundamental questions and was known for his work across a range of scientific fields, Mogilner said.

After earning a doctorate in nuclear engineering from Columbia University, Oster came to UC Berkeley and turned his interests toward biophysics. His inquiries later led him to explore the fields of entomology, environmental science and molecular and cell biology.

Oster’s intervention into the assumed divide between mathematical physics and biology epitomized his creative and cross-disciplinary approach to scientific research. Oster also developed mathematical models to quantitatively explore biological mechanisms, transforming scientists’ understanding of biomolecules and their systems.

The rest of Oster’s career was dedicated to unraveling the physics of the cell. Oster’s innovative work earned him recognition from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. Oster was also awarded the Weldon Memorial Prize by Oxford University, the Winfree Prize by the Society for Mathematical Biology and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler International Prize in Biophysics. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

“He was unmatched by other people. He was a very inquisitive guy so he contributed in a very broad range of topics,” said Terry Machen, campus professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology.

Oster forged collaborations between computational and experimental researchers before such partnerships became common practice, according to Mogilner.

“There was a social aspect in it, but the contributions scientifically were important, too. It’s not so common … a number of scientists tend to do their own thing,” Machen said.

Oster served as a mentor to generations of incoming faculty, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. Former students in Oster’s lab recall the theoretician’s uncommon generosity, unique humor and sustained encouragement toward multidisciplinary research.

“In addition to being a brilliant scientist, he was a great mentor to his students and postdocs and young faculty starting out at Berkeley,” said campus integrative biology professor Mimi Koehl, one of Oster’s colleagues.

In a 2006 profile by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oster described his lab meetings held in campus cafes with students and collaborators from various disciplines.

“You’re able to talk crazy ideas, and people don’t criticize each other,” Oster said in the profile. “This being Berkeley, some days we just end up talking politics. But most of the time, there is some puzzle to kick around. That’s what is fun about doing science. There is this endless supply of intriguing puzzles.”

Oster is survived by his sister Susan Best and his daughter Liya Oster.

Contact Michele Meltzer at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @michele_meltzer.