Former UC Berkeley professor, researcher Nilabh Shastri dies at age 68

Image of Shastri
Nilabh Shastri/Courtesy
Nilabh Shastri

Nilabh Shastri, a widely admired and inspirational UC Berkeley professor in the department of molecular and cell biology, died Jan. 22 at the age of 68.

Raised in India, Shastri studied at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi before studying at UCLA and then the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, according to a tribute from UC Berkeley’s molecular and cell biology department. After teaching for more than 30 years, Shastri left UC Berkeley for Johns Hopkins University in 2018, joining as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, according to an article from Johns Hopkins University.

“Nilabh was an exceptional post doc,” said Leroy Hood, former head of the CalTech lab Shastri joined, in an email. “He had a way of talking about his science that really drew others to him.”

Shastri is remembered not only for his pioneering contributions to immunology — including a method of uncovering specific peptide sequences for any antigen and the discovery of a novel enzyme — but also for his resounding teaching and mentoring prowess, according to the tribute.

A recipient of the UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award, Shastri saw teaching as “a duty and a privilege,” said Ellen Robey, campus professor of immunology and pathogenesis.

“He really put a huge effort into getting to know the students,” Robey said. “There are always over 100 in a class … but he would know every student in the class by name.”

According to Astar Winoto, campus professor of immunology and pathogenesis, Shastri relished in simplifying immunology, making it digestible for students.

This generated greater interest among his students, causing many to apply themselves to science, Winoto added.

“I took his immunology class in 1995,” said Joseph Sun, UC Berkeley alumnus and professor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “He made the material come alive — he’s who I credit for launching my career in immunology.”

Every time he teaches a course, Sun noted that he thinks of Shastri, striving to inspire his students to pursue and gain an appreciation for immunology, akin to Shastri’s impassioned lecturing style.

Shastri was a community builder, Winoto noted, as he co-founded the International Workshops on Antigen Presentation meeting. A kindhearted and generous person, he often took his graduate and postdoctoral students out to dinner, as well as visiting speakers, Robey said.

Many spoke of the great love Shastri had for his subject matter, which he leveraged alongside genuine care for his students’ learning experiences. Friends and colleagues described Shastri as humble and passionate.

In addition to having a love for cooking and travel, Shastri once hiked Mount Kailash in Tibet, following a Hindu tradition, according to Winoto.

“He was an exceptional scientist, mentor and friend to many of us,” Hood said in the email. “He will be greatly missed.”

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected].