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University of Southern California

David was an Assistant Professor, Professor, then Chair of Molecular Biology.


In Memoriam: David J. Galas

Norman Arnheim.jpeg

Norman Arnheim

Michael Waterman.png

Michael Waterman

Norman Arnheim

Norman Arnheim

Distinguished Professor and Ester Dornsife Chair of

Biological Sciences, University of Southern California 

I met David for the first time in the spring of 1985 when I visited the University of Southern California. USC was looking for a new Chair of Biological Sciences and I flew down from the Bay Area for an interview. David was the Head of the Molecular Biology Division and I was impressed with his outlook on the future of science at USC. I accepted the Chair position and became a Professor of Molecular Biology in David’s division.

Before we moved, our family visited LA to look at housing and high school options. David asked us all to dinner and was extremely helpful in recommending areas to live and schools for our daughters; we will always be grateful to him for introducing us to Southern California.

David and I were at USC together for 5 years. We were very busy, with our long commutes from our homes in the San Fernando Valley and having children in high school. Walter Fitch and David began a small wine tasting club and we and others joined. It was a lot of fun but I have little memory of what we talked about; it was a wine tasting club! 

David and I collaborated on scientific projects and were co-authors on two published papers. David was trained in physics and molecular biology and I in molecular genetics. David’s computational and experimental skills made him a major recruiting target in those years when the idea of sequencing a human genome was ready to take off (David actually had a pilot license). He was chosen to be Director for Biological and Environmental Research at the US Department of Energy and took a leave of absence from USC. Four years later he left the DOE after playing a critical role in the DOE’s critical contribution to the genome project. In my opinion his government experience at the DOE changed his outlook on what he might accomplish in the future.


He did not return to USC but moved to the state of Washington and became a biotechnology entrepreneur as well as wearing many other hats. A look at his current CV is awe inspiring, filled both with his great diversity of interests and depth of participation and service. I admire his career and I am so happy he is my friend.

Michael Wateman
Michael Waterman.png

Michael Waterman

I met David Galas on my June 1982 interview trip to the University of Southern California. It was clear that I could learn a lot of biology from David who was in the Molecular Biology Section (my PhD is in Probability and Statistics) and perhaps even collaborate with him. I joined USC late that August and soon there were many conversations with David. Frequently we drove across LA late Friday nights to have dinner at his home on Wonderland Drive in the Hollywood Hills. In my 40 years at USC the only two times when there was a party for the entire MB Section and both were at David’s home. 


One of our most important collaborations came when the Biology Department was looking for a Chair. It came down to Norm Arnheim who was at CETUS making PCR work and a neurobiologist. Dean Wagner was heavily invested in neurobiology, both intellectually and financially, so we had a disadvantage. Wagner managed by concealing his thoughts and decisions until the last moment, and we had a “once a week” algorithm for reminding Wagner what we thought. David and I used this strategy and we succeeded in hiring Norm. In my years at USC the two best MB faculty recruited were Norm Arnheim and Walter Fitch.


David and I are co-authors on four papers. David, who created DNase footprinting, was interested in determining protein binding sites, wanted to use a combinatorial pattern matching algorithm to find other binding sites.  That algorithm could find a pattern in multiple sequences which might never occur exactly. There was the methods paper and then one that applied the technology to promoter binding sites for E. coli genes. Then David performed a one-step experiment, based on presenting a protein to a pool of random DNA; this failed and then amplification-selection came on the scene. With Fengzhu Sun we did a detailed analysis of that process. When David’s collaborator Elbert Branscomb from  DOE-Livermore was pursuing a Bayesian approach to detection of clone overlap (important in  genome sequencing projects), he brought Elbert to USC which resulted in a paper.


When the distinguished poet Richard Wilbur was giving a reading in the English Department, I was surprised to see David in the audience. Needless to say there were no other STEM faculty in sight. David’s interest in poetry goes beyond listening to poets read, and he has written many poems and published books of poetry. 

David taught me that Pinot noir went with seafood. When I helped him with a move to the San Fernando Valley, David gave me a bottle of Bordeaux Sauternes which astonished me. Several of us including David, Walter Finch, and Norm Arnheim (plus spouses) regularly met to do blind wine tastings where less expensive bottles often came out ahead.

That David painted was known to me but recently I saw the large number, variety, and amazing quality of his work. In David Galas we have a man who can conceive of important biological experiments, carry them out with his own hands and then analyze the data; who can formulate and prove theorems in pure mathematics; who can write and publish poetry; who is a painter of high quality. Just to satisfy one of these categories is more than most achieve in a lifetime. How many people on the globe fill all of them? I conjecture that number is precisely one. 

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