October 27, 2022

Salk Institute’s Charles F. Stevens, distinguished professor emeritus, dies at 88

A pioneer in neuroscience, Stevens served on Salk’s faculty from 1990 to 2018

Salk News

Salk Institute’s Charles F. Stevens, distinguished professor emeritus, dies at 88

A pioneer in neuroscience, Stevens served on Salk’s faculty from 1990 to 2018

LA JOLLA—Charles F. “Chuck” Stevens, distinguished professor emeritus in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, died peacefully on October 21, 2022, at his home in San Diego. He was 88.

Charles Stevens
Charles Stevens
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Credit: Salk Institute

“Chuck was a giant in modern neuroscience,” says Salk President Rusty Gage. “He pioneered many techniques to study how messages are transmitted across synapses in the brain and how these signals help us learn and remember. He always brought unique perspectives to any problem and inspired us all to think more creatively. But what’s more, he always had time to talk with his colleagues and trainees, many of whom went on to become accomplished neuroscientists themselves. He will be missed.”

Stevens joined Salk in 1990, after serving as a faculty member at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Yale School of Medicine. He was also a research scientist and advisory board member with the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at UC San Diego.

He was responsible for confirming via modern experimentation long-held beliefs regarding the consistency of neuron density throughout the brain. He was also a leader in exploring and understanding the scalable architecture of the brain.

Stevens worked to formulate a complete list of the principles that govern organization in the brains of a wide variety of animals, from simple creatures to humans. His research encompassed an area called scalable architecture, which centers on the idea that something can gain more properties simply by becoming bigger. He sought to know how scalable architecture is enforced in the brain and if there are always constant ratios between the size of cells and structures.

To answer these fundamental questions, Stevens pinpointed the scaling laws that govern how brains grow and develop. He observed how organisms develop from an embryo to an adult using goldfish as a model organism. Unlike mammals, goldfish have brains that continue to grow throughout their adult lives. Stevens unearthed several design rules of the goldfish brain, such as set relationships between certain brain areas and laws on how neurons leading from the eyes to the brain are organized. He charted how those rules are enforced during development and growth.

Stevens was born September 1, 1934, in Chicago, Illinois to Russell Stevens and Reba Hoffman Stevens. He married Jane Robinson on June 18, 1956, shortly after he graduated from Harvard College and she graduated from Wellesley College. He was the first person in his family to receive a bachelor’s degree.

After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Harvard, Stevens received an MD from Yale University and a PhD in biophysics from the Rockefeller Institute. He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1982 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1984. He was formerly a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and adjunct faculty member in the UC San Diego School of Medicine Department of Pharmacology. He was awarded the National Academy of Sciences’ Award for Scientific Reviewing in 2000.

Stevens is survived by his wife, Jane R. Stevens; their daughters Katharine B. Stevens of Washington, DC, and Alexandra Stevens Thomas of Madison, Wisconsin; and three grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Margaret R. Stevens O’Neill.

In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations to the Charles F. Stevens Neuroscience Research Fund at Salk, which was established to provide research grants to graduate students working in the field of neuroscience. A memorial is being planned for later this year.

Stevens’ colleagues shared the following sentiments:

“Chuck was a true polymath, imbued with a beautiful mind, and a heart to match. As a colleague one could but hold him in awe. While his interests were broad, he was first and foremost a scientist, and a generous one at that,” says Salk Professor Martyn Goulding. “On any given day you would find him in the lab or his office doing what he loved most, with his wife, Jane, joining him the weekend where she too would beaver away on her classical music studies. His research, which combined theory and experiment with math and neurophysiology, is the thing of textbooks. What more can a scientist want but to see your foundational findings stand the test of time and the people you trained make important discoveries, too.”

“When I arrived at the Institute in 1978, Salk was at the epicenter of the new molecular era of neuroscience,” says Salk Professor Ron Evans. “A powerhouse, with Roger Guillemin, Wylie Vale, Steve Heineman and soon Max Cowan. However, with a background in math and theoretical physics Chuck Stevens pioneered a new approach to understanding ‘things’ like learning and memory. Chuck was a unicorn, loved to chat, loved to think, loved to push boundaries, and simply loved to think about thinking. He often sat alone in silence (presumably deep in thought) eating lunch on the travertine bench in the Salk plaza. At the same time, if I caught his eye, he’d be more than happy to chat and always loved a good joke. He was a transformative figure, a type of pure scientist who challenged everyone to think differently.”

“I met Chuck at the very first scientific meeting that I ever attended,” says Salk Professor Greg Lemke. “It was in the early winter of 1980, at Cold Spring Harbor. He has been an inspiration to me since that time: smarter than most, open to any and all new ideas from anyone, anywhere, and always driven to understand the workings of the world. Chuck was very special and very important. I will miss him.”

“Chuck was a deep and highly original thinker, who even after he closed his lab continued to publish theoretical papers on a wide range of neurobiology topics such as brain architecture, including a wonderful article on how the speed of thought compares for brain and computers, concluding that for complex tasks such as facial recognition, the brain wins hands down,” says Salk Professor Tony Hunter. “Chuck was always entertaining to talk to and will be missed by his Salk colleagues.”

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