Owen, 60, will assume the position July 1, taking the reins
from Paul Licht, who held the post for eight years. Licht,
professor of integrative biology, will take a year's sabbatical
before returning to the faculty.
"Geoff Owen was clearly everyone's choice for the job,"
said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, in announcing
Owen's appointment on June 5. "His leadership will be key
to our continuing excellence in the biological sciences,
one of Berkeley's great strengths. He also will be an important
player in moving our Health Sciences Initiative forward."
With about 105 faculty members in two departments - integrative
biology and molecular and cell biology - the division houses
researchers studying everything from entire organisms to
the human genome. It graduates some 800 students each year
who embark on careers in the health sciences, veterinary
medicine, biotechnology, environmental science and academia.
Owen, whose research involves how the visual system makes
sense of the world around us, expects to spend much of his
time raising funds to expand and improve biological research
on campus. Several large research initiatives have been
launched on campus within the last few years, including
the Health Sciences Initiative to bolster collaboration
among campus departments, and the state-funded Institute
for Quantitative Biomedical Research, or QB3, a partnership
with the Santa Cruz and San Francisco campuses to integrate
physical, mathematical and engineering sciences to create
powerful new techniques for attacking problems in biology.
Both initiatives need new or renovated buildings into which
researchers can expand, and donors to help build them. Owen
wants to put equal effort into finding funding for new research
programs in emerging areas of science.
"The next few years are going to be difficult because of
state budget cuts, which come at a time when the importance
of biology continues to grow," he said. "If Berkeley is
going to remain competitive, we are going to have to mine
more extramural sources of money."
One such program in the works at UC Berkeley is the Center
for Evolutionary Genomics and Development, a collaboration
between evolutionary biologists in the Department of Integrative
Biology and genome researchers in the Department of Molecular
& Cell Biology. Scientists hope that by correlating evolutionary
changes in species with changes in the genome, they can
learn more about both evolution and the way genes work.
"We want to look at subtle changes in morphology - changes
in the shape of an organism - and determine how they are
related to changes in the genetic code," Owen said.
He also plans to build up areas that have languished as
scientists converged on the hot areas of molecular biology
and genetics. One such area is the study of systems - large
groups of cells or organs, like the central nervous system
and the brain, or the hormonal system - that used to fall
under the purview of physiology or endocrinology. The campus's
Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute is one highly successful
example of a center devoted to a system - in that case,
the central nervous system - and Owen hopes to encourage
the development of others.
Born in 1942 in Bristol, England, Owen received his B.Sc.
in physics in 1965 and his PhD in applied optics in 1970
from the University of London. His interest in optics was
fueled by an interest in photography and art, but he soon
realized that optical design was being overtaken by computer
automation, becoming more of a technology than a science.
In an effort to change fields, he moved to the United States
in 1970 to work as a postdoc at the Jules Stein Eye Institute
in Los Angeles.
After a further postdoctoral stint at UC San Francisco,
he joined the faculty of the State University of New York
at Stony Brook, spent two years as a visiting scholar at
the University of Cambridge in England, and finally settled
in as a biophysicist and assistant professor at UC Berkeley
in 1980. Ironically, it was only in 1998 that he obtained
a degree in biology, when the University of London awarded
him a Doctor of Science degree for distinguished research
in neurophysiology and biophysics.
Much of Owen's biophysics research centers around the retina's
photoreceptors, the cells that absorb light and provide
input to the other cells of the retina and the brain, where
the visual world is interpreted.
Owen became chair of the Department of Biophysics & Medical
Physics in 1987 until it was dissolved in 1989 and merged
with the newly formed Department of Molecular & Cell Biology.
Within that department he served as head of the Division
of Biophysics & Cell Physiology until 1990, when he joined
the Division of Neurobiology. He served as head of that
division from 1998 until 2001, when he became chair of the
As he assumes the position of dean, he plans to close down
his laboratory because he feels he has completed the laboratory
phase of his research. Having discovered how retinal cells
identify and emphasize what is perceptually important in
an image, and how they define visual objects and treat them
as separate elements of an image, he now wants to concentrate
on theory and other, more philosophical questions.
"I think sensory systems in general may use the same principles
we've discovered for the retina," he said. "I'm now planning
to see if the theory applies to the auditory system, which
is able to pick out the sound of a bell from the din just
as easily as our eyes pick out a familiar face from the
Owen's research, plus his new responsibilities as dean
- administration, fund raising and program development -
promise to keep him busy. But he is energized by what brought
him to UC Berkeley 22 years ago.
"What Berkeley offers is a tremendous breadth of biology
and a world-class faculty," Owen said. "Our faculty really
are tops; that's why people come here."