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at the top of his undergraduate class in physics in 1961. He thought about getting a graduate degree in astrophysics for a while. But this was the same year as the Cuban missile crisis, and increasing calls from around the world for nuclear disarmament.
“People were very upset about the bombs. I decided that wasn’t an appropriate career,” Kelly says.
These were also the heady early days of molecular biology, as bright young minds flocked to explore the mysteries around DNA that Francis Crick and James Watson had begun to unravel in 1953. There was only one problem for Kelly. He knew nothing about biology. “I had never taken a biology class in my life. They didn’t teach biology in Catholic schools, because you had to learn about sex. That wasn’t allowed,” he said with a laugh.
But Kelly still found a way to get into a graduate program that would value his physics training and allow him to get up to speed on biology as a grad student. It was through a biophysics program at Caltech, where he got his PhD in 1967.
Fresh out of Caltech, Kelly first arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area. During that period of anti-war protests and the counterculture, he took a postdoctoral fellowship that lasted a couple years in the Stanford University lab of Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg.
Pushing 30 by this point, he had an impressive academic record but hadn’t found his research path. Neurobiology seemed like a good place to be, Kelly says, especially since the famed biologist Sydney Brenner talked it up as the great frontier for biology’s biggest questions. So Kelly landed this time in Harvard University’s neurobiology program, best in the world at the time.
For a young man, it all looked like a predictable path toward a career as a leading neuroscientist. But then Kelly shocked his friends at Harvard two years later in 1971, when he accepted a faculty position at UCSF.
“It was a real second-rate place,” Kelly says. “People couldn’t believe that I had accepted to go UCSF over other options. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.”
One of the faculty members at UCSF in those days, Gordon Tomkins, closed the deal. “I remember him say, ‘If you love Harvard, you won’t like what we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to do is make a place collegial, a community.'”
It was in tune with the spirit of the late 1960s, the hippie movement, and the desire to create a sense of belonging. It struck Kelly as the opposite of Harvard, with its notorious sharp elbows, where you had to guard yourself from colleagues who might try to steal your work.
UCSF proved to be the right place for Kelly to grow as a researcher along with other bright young peers. He reveled in the California outdoors. He gravitated to whitewater rafting, kayaking, mountaineering, rock-climbing. He told me about one white-knuckle adventure when a climbing partner fell and nearly yanked him off a mountain. “I was a wild man,” he says.
This was also a time when Kelly’s research career was taking off and the biotech boom was beginning to flower at UCSF. Kelly and a few other peers resisted loudly. They rejected the ideas … Next Page »