Symposium Honors the Life and Work of Biologist Michael Menaker

Michael Menaker
UVA Professor of Biology Michael Menaker was an internationally renowned researcher and a generous mentor.
Photo Credit: Jay Hirsch

Among the many unfortunate consequences of a global pandemic are the missed opportunities to gather together to honor the lives of those who are no longer with us. Michael Menaker, a retired professor of The College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Biology passed away in February of 2021, but on January 6th, faculty, students, members of the Menaker family, alumni and leading biologists from the around the world gathered on Grounds for a symposium honoring Menaker’s life and his work both as a mentor and a giant in the field of circadian biology


Recruited to the University of Virginia in 1987 from the University of Oregon, Menaker’s groundbreaking research in circadian rhythms — the internal processes that regulate sleep and other daily cycles in the physiology and behavior of organisms — and his work in founding the National Science Foundation Center for Biological Timing based at UVA placed the University at the center of the study of the field of chronobiology and led to Nobel Prizes in Medicine for three of the Center’s members.


“Mike was one of the founding fathers of the contemporary field,” said Ignacio Provencio, a neuroscientist with the College’s Department of Biology and one of the organizers of the symposium. “He made tremendous contributions to the field not only as a scholar but also as a teacher.”


Despite his status as a celebrity in scientific circles, Menaker’s commitment to his students and his colleagues at the University was just as extraordinary as his research.


“I’m a big basketball fan,” said Provencio who came to UVA as graduate student to work with Menaker and his colleagues, “and I equate seeing him for the first time to meeting Michael Jordan, but I was blown away that this hero of mine would be willing to talk to me for hours about my work.”


“A common theme in the video tributes we prepared for the symposium,” Provencio added, “was how when one went in to speak with Mike his focus was strictly on you. He was the best listener I’ve ever met.”


Among Menaker’s long list of students and academic colleagues are some of the most prominent names in circadian biology, many of whom came to Charlottesville from as far away as Japan and Australia just to attend the one-day event, including Joseph Takahashi, one of the most highly respected biologists in the country and Menaker’s former student who is now chair of the department of Neuroscience at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.


Other notable attendees included Menaker’s former student Vincent Cassone, chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Kentucky, whose work is focused on the mechanisms and neuroendocrine pathways by which the biological clock regulates physiology and behavior in vertebrates and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s Carla Green, a former colleague of Menaker’s at UVA and a scientific trailblazer who has made significant contributions to science’s understanding of the biological clock.


“Mike was such an important person to so many people in my field,” said Green. “It was so amazing to be able to celebrate his life with his family there, and to see the impact his influence and training has had on science in such a broad way was really amazing.”