August 17, 1948 (age 67)New York City, New York (
Stanford UniversityUniversity of Oregon
Los Angeles, California, United States
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UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block delivers his inaugural address
Gene David Block (born August 17, 1948) is an American biologist, academic, inventor, and chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles. He attended Stanford University for his BA, and subsequently received his MS and PhD in psychology from the University of Oregon in 1975. Block was then provost and professor of biology at the University of Virginia. While at the University of Virginia, Block interacted with Randy Pausch and is mentioned in his memoir, The Last Lecture.
- UCLA Chancellor Gene D Block delivers his inaugural address
- Early life and family
- Marriage and children
- Employment history
- Cell autonomous circadian pacemakers
- Necessity of calcium flux for rhythmicity
- Effects of aging on the circadian clock
- Honors and awards
- Opposition to Proposition 209
Before becoming chancellor of UCLA, Block had an extensive scientific career. His early work with mollusks investigated the structure and function of basal retinal neurons (BRN) in circadian photoentrainment. He was the first to discover a cell-autonomous circadian pacemaker and concluded that BRNs are both necessary and sufficient for photoentrainment. Later in his career, Block explored the molecular basis of circadian rhythms in mammals, and found that calcium flux was necessary for circadian rhythmicity. His most recent research, which he is still working on today, is largely focused on the effect that aging has on the circadian clock.
Early life and family
Block was born to a Jewish family in Monticello, New York, the grandson of immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father and uncle owned Mountain Dairies, a retail/wholesale distributor that served many of the hotels and camps that populated the Catskill region of New York. During high school summers he worked at the dairy as a truck driver, starting his days at 4am for early morning deliveries to summer camps and hotels. He also played piano in a trio that provided dance music for Saturday evening parties at several bungalow colonies within the "Borscht Belt". His hobbies included electronics and shortwave radio. He played varsity tennis at Monticello High School.
Block received the BA from Stanford University in 1970, followed by the MS and PhD in 1972 and 1975, respectively, from the University of Oregon; all of these degrees were in psychology. From 1975-1978, he returned to Stanford for postdoctoral work with Donald Kennedy, who later became president of Stanford, and Colin Pittendrigh, who is known as the “father of biological timing." During this time Block studied how voluntary movements inhibit sensory feedback in the crayfish working in the Kennedy lab while studying issues of circadian biology with Colin Pittendrigh.
Marriage and children
In 1970, Block married Carol Kullback, also from Monticello; they have two grown children. Block enjoys making time for his hobbies that include tinkering with cars and his collection of 50 antique radios.
In 1978, Block became a member of the faculty in the Department of Biology of University of Virginia. Here, Block served as the vice provost for research and public service from 1993-1998, and then 2001 he was appointed as vice president. Furthermore, during this time from 1991-2002, Block also served as the founding director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Center in Biological Timing.
According to Block, “The center raised the national visibility of the University in biological and medical research, and gave us reputational leverage in the U.S. as well as in Europe and Japan...Most importantly, the center’s scientific accomplishments have been spectacular. We’ve done some high-risk research that has paid off greatly; some of it has fundamentally changed our understanding of biological processes.”
One of the center’s biggest advances, largely by Joseph Takahashi, was the development of a mutant mouse that allowed for the identification and cloning of the “Clock” gene for the biological clock in a mouse in 1997. This was the first such gene to be identified at the molecular level in a mammal. This groundbreaking discovery was a result of the Clock Genome Project, which uses "forward genetics" to discover the genes regulating circadian clocks in mice, fruit flies, and plants. In addition, this work also led to the discovery of many other genes that regulate the biological clock.
In 1997 and 1998, the reputable journal Science ranked the findings of the NSF Center in Biological Timings among the top 10 in biological research breakthroughs.
Finally, Block was appointed Chancellor of UCLA in 2007. His selection was announced on 21 December 2006, succeeding interim office holder Norman Abrams on 1 August 2007. As chancellor, Gene Block has faced the challenge of steering UCLA through a severe budget crisis. Despite being regarded a top leader, Chancellor Block has nonetheless overseen steep tuition increases. Chancellor Block holds a periodic student office hour and sometimes breakfasts with groups of students. Chancellor Block has also focused attention on non-faculty staff, including regular staff/chancellor breakfast. In addition, Mrs. Block hosts staff at athletic events and student musical recitals at their residence. Chancellor Block holds UCLA faculty appointments in psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine and in physiological science in the College of Letters and Science.
Cell-autonomous circadian pacemakers
While at the University of Virginia, Block worked extensively with his graduate student, Dr. Douglas G. McMahon, the 1986 winner of the Society for Neuroscience's Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience, on the functioning of the circadian pacemaker system at the cellular level in Bulla gouldiana. In 1984, Block's students conducted a continuous 74-hour intracellular recording in constant darkness that demonstrated that basal retinal neurons (BRN) in the Bulla eye exhibit clear circadian rhythms. These rhythms were also shown to be correlated one-for-one with compound action potentials produced by the optic nerve. The change in membrane potential of the BRNs, which are electrically coupled, were shown to precede or occur simultaneously with the increased compound action potential frequency. An increase in firing frequency, and depolarization of the BRNs, was seen during the day, and the reverse at night. These results demonstrated that the BRNs were at minimum an output for the pacemaker pathway and provided evidence that they were good candidates for being circadian pacemaker neurons.
This research was expanded several years later by a breakthrough study published in Science in which Dr. Stephan Michel, and others working in Block's laboratory, demonstrated that circadian rhythms in BRN membrane conductance could persist spontaneously in isolated BRNs. These spontaneous circadian rhythms were shown for BRNs in isolation from other retinal cells and in isolation from each other. They showed that these circadian rhythms in membrane conductance were caused primarily by a potassium ion current. BRNs in isolation demonstrated the same patterns shown in Block's previous work in which membrane conductance decreased at dawn and increased at dusk. That similar patterns were seen in isolated cells as in previous multiple cell cultures provided the first strong evidence that individual neurons possessed the capacity to generate circadian rhythms. This research definitively concluded that BRNs are both necessary and sufficient for photoentrainment in Bulla.
Necessity of calcium flux for rhythmicity
Block and colleagues hypothesized that ion movement across cell membranes plays a role in the generation of circadian rhythms. In 2005, his lab measured rhythms in rat suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) in various concentrations of calcium ions. Block found that as calcium concentration decreased, thus lowering the transmembrane ion movement, the amplitude of circadian rhythmicity also decreased. With no calcium added, there was no circadian rhythm at all. Block's lab repeated the experiment with rat liver tissue and mouse SCN tissue and found the same results in each case. This demonstrated that across species and tissues, transmembrane calcium flux is necessary for the generation of circadian rhythms. However, there are still some questions about the function of calcium flux. In this experiment, Block also tried adding calcium channel blockers to the tissues. Rhythmicity did disappear, but it took several cycles, and it is unknown why rhythmicity was not immediately abolished. In addition, Block suspects that calcium flux plays a role in the entrainment of the mammalian clock to the environment, similar to its role in mollusk entrainment.
Effects of aging on the circadian clock
Block has also studied the effect that aging has on the circadian system, collaborating with other leading chronobiologists including Michael Menaker. In 2002, he studied rhythmicity in rats of various ages and found that aging affected rhythmicity differently in different tissues. In the SCN, the intrinsic period shortened with age, while lung tissue often became arrhythmic (showing sporadic activity) and pineal and kidney tissues became phase advanced. In 2008, Block exposed rats of various ages to different light cycles, and found that phase advances took longer in the SCN in old rats than in young rats, but pineal tissues advanced faster in older rats. Liver tissues did not phase shift at all when the light cycle was advanced. These studies together have shown how complex the aging process is in the circadian system. Block notes that some, though not all, of these changes are likely influenced by diminishing synchronizing signals from the SCN. In 2006, Block observed that jetlag significantly increased the death rate in older mice, which highlights the medical importance of understanding the aging process of the circadian system.
Honors and awards
Block has served on over numerous advisory boards and committees. His most recent positions include:
Block also is a member in many scientific societies:
Opposition to Proposition 209
On February 24, 2014, Block sent an open letter to the whole UCLA community expressing his strong opposition to Proposition 209. His main point in this letter was merit based selection system damages diversity on campus.