Robert Tod Schimke, professor emeritus of biology at Stanford, was creative, unpretentious, irreverent, critical and supportive, often all at the same time.

Robert Schimke, professor emeritus of biology, became an accomplished painter after a traumatic accident. (Image credit: Courtesy Schimke Family)

Colleagues say that each of those qualities helped him make some of the most important discoveries and contributions to modern cell biology and genetics, while also being a fantastic mentor to dozens of young scientists.

Schimke died in Palo Alto on Sept. 6 at age 81 following several months of declining health.

An academic star

Schimke was born in Spokane, Washington, in 1932. His father was a dentist, and his mother a pianist and piano teacher, laying the foundation for what would be a prosperous scientific and artistic career.

He was a brilliant student and school came easy to him – he could do a week’s worth of geometry homework in an hour. That left him plenty of time to get into trouble, and he described himself as a “holy terror” and a frequent visitor to the principal’s office.

He came to Stanford as an undergraduate – on full scholarship – and although he was a gifted and avid painter, he studied pre-med, graduating in 1954. He then went to Stanford School of Medicine and began to focus on research, particularly cell biology. He graduated in 1958 and began a two-year residency at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He served in the Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, from 1960 to 1966, after which he returned to Stanford in the Pharmacology Department in the School of Medicine, serving as chair from 1970 to 1973. He then moved to the Department of Biological Sciences, which he chaired from 1978 to 1982.

It was during those years at Stanford that Schimke made significant, pioneering discoveries in four areas of biomedical sciences.

Transformative discoveries

In the 1960s, he and his colleagues revolutionized the understanding of cell biology by showing that eukaryotic cells not only synthesize proteins but also degrade them, and that these processes are regulated by both genetic and environmental factors. Next, Schimke found that specific gene functions could be controlled by hormones.

Schimke’s most famous discovery came in the late 1970s, when he and his graduate student Fred Alt provided evidence that the mammalian genome could undergo rapid change. They showed that cultured cells could develop resistance to a particular drug by amplifying the number of copies of specific genes.

This observation was later proved in animal models and was shown to be a key mechanism of clinical resistance to anti-cancer drugs in humans. Studies of the human genome have shown that such changes are one of the ways that genomes evolve over time. The approach has become a key element in the development of therapeutic drugs, particularly for cancer.

Then, Schimke’s work on the effects of anti-cancer drugs linked his previous findings on genome stability to apoptosis, or programmed cell death. These experiments showed that apoptosis is important in preventing the changes to the genome that are associated with cancer.

Tough but fair

Schimke developed a reputation as a very critical, practical, no-nonsense scientist. Alt half jokes that Schimke only brought him on as a full-time student because he was good at handling the goats and sheep that Schimke’s group used to produce antibodies.

“He was incredibly honest, and would say exactly what he thought about your work, or his own. You always knew exactly what he was thinking. That was one of his great attributes, and he was usually right,” said Alt, who is now the Charles A. Janeway Professor of Pediatrics and Genetics at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital. “But he was often incredibly patient. I was a new graduate student working in a new field, and he supported that in many ways. As a mentor, he was tough, but never impatient.”

During his time at Stanford, Schimke mentored more than 100 undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and many went on to distinguished careers and leadership positions. “He was a devoted classroom teacher at all levels, imparting a passion for science and the role of science in everyday life,” said Robert Simoni, the Donald Kennedy Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a colleague of Schimke’s in the Department of Biology. “As a biology colleague, he was a mentor to both junior and senior faculty and was endlessly supportive of the departmental missions of teaching and research.”

One of the many talented faculty members Schimke helped to recruit was Tim Stearns, the current chair of the Department of Biology.

“Bob Schimke was one of the main reasons I came to Stanford as an assistant professor in 1993,” said Stearns, the Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor of Biology. “We worked in similar areas of cell biology, and I loved his irreverent approach to science, and life in general. In my lab we still have a centrifuge that he gave me, and l think of him each time I pass by it, usually imagining how he would, in his tell-it-like-it-is manner, critique one of our latest experiments.”

Approaching recreational athletics with the same toughness he expressed in the lab, Schimke challenged much younger students to gritty games of one-on-one basketball. He enjoyed organizing lab softball games and was an ardent supporter of Stanford athletics, especially football and men’s and women’s basketball.

A new challenge

In 1995, while biking home from his lab, he was severely injured in a collision with a car. The accident damaged his spine, leaving him partially paralyzed from the neck down. He approached his recovery with the same tenacity as he did his research, and eventually regained the use of his arms and legs. Although he spent the remainder of his life using a wheelchair, friends recall that he willed himself to walk again, with the aid of braces, beating the prognosis of his doctors.

He was less active as a scientific researcher as a result of the accident, but he eventually focused his energy into one of his life passions: painting. He honed a dripping technique that produced pieces reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s famous works.

“I used to be rather physically active,” he once said in an interview. “Obviously, I can’t do that anymore, so I take it out on my paintings. They are all moving. There’s nothing static about them.”

He produced more than 400 works of art, some of which have been exhibited at Silicon Valley Open Studios, Stanford University Center for Integrated Systems and Google headquarters. Others are on display at the National Institutes of Health and several other academic and biomedical institutions.

Schimke’s research was recognized by many prizes and awards, including the W.C. Rose Award in Biochemistry, the Alfred P. Sloan Award from the General Motors Cancer Foundation and the Lila Gruber Memorial Cancer Research Award. He was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. In 2009, Stanford School of Medicine recognized his many contributions to the biomedical sciences with the Wallace E. Sterling Prize. Schimke was a member of numerous national advisory and editorial boards, including 18 years as associate editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. In 1988-89 he served as president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia Jones, a professor of biology at Stanford; his daughter Caroline Schimke and her sons, Tristan and Jonathan Lee, of Seattle; his daughter Cynthia Ames, husband David and children Jillian and Elliott of Boulder Creek, California; his daughter Allison Powers, husband Michael and daughter Devin of Salt Lake City; and his sister, Barbara Bazemore, and her sons, Don and Matt, of Seattle.

Plans for a memorial service have not yet been finalized. Donations in lieu of flowers may be made to the Robert T. Schimke Graduate Fellowship Fund, Department of Biology, Stanford University.