William D. Nunn, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry: Irvine


William D. Nunn was born in Far Rockaway, New York, on April 13, 1943. He obtained his B.S. in physical science at Colorado State University in 1965 and his Ph.D. in biochemistry at the City University of New York in 1972. He spent three postdoctoral years at Yale University, came to Irvine in 1975 as an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, and became full professor in 1984. He was 43 years old when he died at home of a sudden, severe heart attack on July 1, 1986.

Throughout his career, Dr. Nunn studied the metabolism of lipids and the behavior of biological membranes. His best-known studies concern fatty acid degradation in the bacterium Escherichia coli. In his early efforts, he attempted to correlate fatty acid synthesis and degradation with membrane formation and cell growth. Dissatisfied that these studies did not uncover specific causal relationships, he turned to the regulation of enzymes that degrade fatty acids. One contribution was his full characterization of a gene, fadR, which is required for the proper regulation of these enzymes. He and his students defined the action of the gene product and showed that it was required for integrating fatty acid degradation with many other metabolic activities.

His other major scholarly contribution was the analysis of fatty acid transport into the bacterial cell. He discovered the fadL gene, which controls the entry of long-chain fatty acids. He then isolated the gene's product, and demonstrated that the protein was localized in the outer bacterial cell membrane. This study significantly advanced knowledge of fatty acid transport in all living organisms, previously thought to be independent of carrier molecules. The work on the two genes, embodied in about 45 publications on fatty acid metabolism, will be permanent evidence of Nunn's seminal impact on his field. During his brief career, he trained four doctoral and five postdoctoral students, several of whom are faculty members in major institutions.


Bill's scientific progress was remarkable in that he began as a conventional, though very able, biochemist. He became a versatile bacterial geneticist by intense reading and by encouraging his students to try genetic techniques. He learned transport techniques readily, and by the time of his death, he had mastered contemporary recombinant DNA methodology. These examples illustrate Bill's pursuit of a problem at many levels, and with all techniques he thought necessary, regardless of his prior expertise. He was never troubled by the unexpected; he sought it by following unconventional thoughts in rigorous ways. He was also a demanding teacher, both in undergraduate courses and as a graduate advisor, and inspired students to reach the limits of their potential. Bill was not satisfied until his students' efforts equalled those he would have made in their place.

Bill was a visible figure in the American scientific community as a member of two National Institutes of Health Study Sections, Biochemistry (1979-1983) and Microbial Physiology and Genetics (1984 to his death), and as an appointed member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the most prestigious journal of his field.

Another role--exercised within and outside the University--was Bill's work for the advancement of black students and scientists. He was a black scientist of early and high accomplishments, and was sought throughout his career as an advisor to others. He selflessly accepted this role, and performed it intensely. At Irvine, he was a model and informal advisor for many black biological sciences students. He offered several a place in his laboratory from which they went on to medical or graduate school. In his last years, with Rick Turner and Christine Moseley, he organized the UCI Saturday Academy for minority children in grades 3 through 8, and became a key member of the Black Faculty and Staff Association, seeing to the welfare and advancement of minority students, staff and faculty. His death is a great loss to these programs.

Bill was also deeply involved in minority affairs nationally. He was a member of the Minority Biomedical Sciences Research Program, which brought together promising minority students from all over the country to make scientific presentations which Bill judged for awards. He was an ad hoc reviewer for the National Science Foundation for its Research Initiatives in Minority Institutions program. Finally, he was a committee member of the National Institutes of Health Research Centers at Minority Institutions program. All of these activities were done at a substantial personal cost, but without fanfare. Together, they signify his national recognition as an effective representative of the interests of minorities. Just before he died, he was invited to become a charter member of the newly organized E. E. Just Society for the Advancement of Biological Sciences, named after a prominent black embryologist of the early years of this century.

Nunn's honors include a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, an Established Investigatorship of the American Heart Association

(1978-1983), and the Rosser-Rivera Distinguished Lectureship in Biological Chemistry from UC Riverside.

As a friend and colleague in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Bill had great warmth, humor and discernment. He impressed us by how seriously he took his academic responsibilities. He would serve on any committee and render judgments universally valued for their independence. He was often the only one who would raise important but uncomfortable issues, and who would be completely frank in his evaluations of recruits, colleagues and graduate students. At times he was troubled by dark moods emerging from feelings that he was accomplishing too little, or from differences with friends. These moods passed, and he would again see enormous humor and opportunity in the life around him. His characteristic laughter echoes in the halls of Steinhaus Hall even now.

In sum, Bill Nunn will be remembered as an inspiring colleague, a distinguished scientist and teacher, and a driven, effective exponent of the interests of minorities. He is and will continue to be missed by the many communities of which he was a part. He leaves his wife, Geraldine, and two children, Adrienne and William Byron.

Rowland H. Davis Barbara A. Hamkalo Thomas E. Johnson