Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Remembering David Yue

My friend and colleague, David Yue, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins, suddenly passed away in his laboratory on Tuesday December 23, 2014.  This is to his memory.

On Saturday my phone rang.  I went to pick it up, and was surprised that is said "David Yue".  Puzzled, I thought wouldn't it be amazing if it were my dead friend calling?  I answered it, tentatively saying "hi", and heard the voice of David’s wife, Nancy.

She was calling to ask if I could speak at his memorial.  I said of course and asked how she was doing.  She said that it gets better with every passing day.  Just the night before she and the three boys had opened the presents that David had placed under the Christmas tree.  One of the presents got the four of them laughing. "It was so David", she said.  "He gave me 27 years of happiness".

David gave a quarter century of happiness to us, his colleagues and students at the Biomedical Engineering Department at Hopkins.  With his hands, he constructed some of the pillars of our undergraduate education, a course called Systems Bioengineering, and a course called Ion Channels.  What was it like to be a student in his class? 

Joseph Greenstein writes:  “I go back nearly twenty years to when I was a student taking his class on ion channels. At the time he was reading a biography of Sir Isaac Newton, and David shared his favorite bits with us in class. David took to using the phrase made famous by Newton, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” when referring to Hodgkin, Huxley, and many other pioneers of quantitative electrophysiology. Beyond his extraordinary skill and passion as a scientist, he had a rare talent for transforming explanations of biological mechanism into engaging, eloquent stories. I recall him likening a CaMKII molecule hovering over a calcium channel to the massive mother ship in the movie Independence Day hovering over a city. As I teach students how to model channel gating and pursue my own lines of research, David is the giant whose shoulders I stand on.”

Gerda Brietwieser writes: “His explanations of the electrocardiogram were the clearest and most beautiful I have ever heard. He was a stellar scientist and a wonderful human being.”

He mentored over 30 PhD students and postdoctoral fellows.  What was it like to be a student in his lab?  Let’s hear David describe it, in this 2002 note that he wrote for his student Carla DeMaria:

“Carla, you have had a ride to remember the past few years in lab, forging friends, colleagues, science, and truth.  Thank you for sharing a path of self-discovery borne of waging exciting battles together, and laboring arm-on-arm with courage.  Treasure these years, as I will.  They have nurtured you with a strength that will sustain you in life and work.“

Manu Ben-Johny, a graduate student in his lab writes: “He was an incredible mentor and an exceptionally kind and generous person. He was always there to help us - whether it was b/c our electrophysiology rigs weren't air-floated properly or if it was a personal struggle we needed advice on. He spoke with eloquence and enthusiasm about science that was truly inspirational. His absence leaves behind a large void in my heart but I know his memories will continue to guide my life.”

What was it like to be one his colleague?  When one of his sons started taking physics at college, David began re-learning thermodynamics on his own.  One morning he walked into my office, wearing his black shirt, the coffee cup from the 3rd floor cafe in his hands, the rainbow colored band that held his badge around his neck, and started telling me about a fundamental equation.  I joined him at my black board, handed him a piece of chalk, and asked him to start at the beginning, because I wanted to understand it too.

Together, David and I built the PHD program from 50 students, to nearly 200.  Just a couple of days ago, I was sitting in my office and thinking of ways to organize this year’s admission process.  I had a thought, and like always, I wanted to bounce it off David.  Does this idea make sense David?  If we do it this way, would it make a difference?  I was about to leave my chair and go up to the 7th floor, to find him in his office, but then I sat down.

One of the worst things about growing old is that you lose people that you love.  And so it is for me.

John Keats wrote: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness."  And so it is with David.