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Bessie Huang Gilula: 1945–2017



Bessie Huang Gilula

Bessie Huang Gilula, a retired research scientist at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), passed away peacefully at her home on March 2, 2017. She was 71 years old.

Huang Gilula was born on April 5, 1945, in Chungking, China. She came to the United States in 1947, when her father, a diplomat, was posted to the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC.

Before she became a scientist, Huang Gilula’s passion was ballet. She began studying ballet in the early 1950s at the world-renowned American School of Ballet, under George Balanchine. Huang Gilula was an exceptional dancer and was even a member of Balanchine’s original cast of the classic ballet “The Nutcracker.”

Huang Gilula went on to graduate with honors from the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. She then attended Sarah Lawrence College and majored in biology. Following graduation, she pursued graduate studies in cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, earning a Ph.D. in 1971. She followed that with postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Medical School and The Rockefeller University.

In 1974, Huang Gilula joined The Rockefeller University as a scientist in the lab of David Luck. There she studied a type of chlamydomonas alga, known for swimming toward light using its flagella (the whip-like appendages that allow many microbes to move). By studying mutations in this organism, she and her colleagues shed light on the genes and proteins involved in cell movement. Solving the mysteries of cell movement and flagella would become the focus of her career.

“Her results had broad applicability, as flagellum structure and function are highly conserved amongst species,” recalled Dan Rifkin, a former colleague and friend.

In 1986, Huang Gilula moved to La Jolla, CA, with her family to join the faculty of the Departments of Cell Biology and Molecular Biology at TSRI. There she continued her research into chlamydomonas, using the organism to gain insight into important proteins such as actin and tubulin, which regulate cell and organelle movement.

Through it all, her partner in life and science was her husband, Norton Bernard Gilula, the first dean of the TSRI Graduate Program and chair of the Department of Cell Biology. Huang Gilula and her husband ran laboratories that sat side-by-side and shared a joint conference room.

“This was symbolic of how they lived their lives, never having spent more than three or four days apart throughout their entire marriage,” noted their sons, Daniel and Jonathan Gilula.

TSRI Professor and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Velia Fowler was originally recruited to TSRI by Bernie Gilula, and she reflected on the couple’s influence on campus. “They were really important people in the scientific community at this institute and the whole Torrey Pines Mesa,” she said. “Together, they changed a lot of people’s lives—personally and professionally. Their colleagues were their friends.”

Over the years, Huang Gilula authored many scientific publications and was a member of multiple boards in the field of cell biology. She retired in 1999.

Outside the lab, Huang Gilula’s loved ones remember her as an amazing wife, mother and grandmother who always put family first. She was known for her love of travel, cooking and golfing—she was an avid golfer who had two career hole-in-ones. She closely followed her favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, and enjoyed morning walks along the beach at La Jolla Shores.

Preceded in death by her mother Carrie Huang and husband, Huang Gilula is survived by her sons Jonathan Gilula (Robin) and Daniel Gilula; her father Shing-Yi Huang; her sister Belle Huang (Ed); her brother Sidney Huang (Lauren); grandchildren Brin and Cameron Gilula; and her longtime companion Lowell Dicke.

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Bessie Huang Gilula and her husband, Norton Bernard Gilula, were research partners and loving parents to sons Daniel and Jonathan Gilula.

Before becoming a researcher, Huang Gilula danced in the world-renowned American School of Ballet. (Images courtesy Gilula family.)