The Berkeley Lab community mourns the loss of Kenneth H. Downing, who died August 2 at age 72. A senior scientist in the Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging (MBIB) Division, Downing worked at the Lab for more than four decades. He passed away at home, surrounded by his family.
After completing a PhD in Applied Physics at Cornell University and spending most of his subsequent postdoctoral years at the Swiss Federal Institute in Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Downing joined the Lab in 1977. Over the course of his distinguished career, he made significant contributions to the development of high-resolution electron microscopy of biological macromolecules, now the most powerful way to understand the structures of the biochemical “machines” that carry out the diverse functions of living cells. Arguably, his best-known achievement within the realm of biochemistry and cell biology was the work leading to the high-resolution crystal structure of tubulin, a protein that helps determine cell shape and motility, and is essential for the separation of chromosomes during cell division.
Downing also led the determination of the structure of bacteriorhodopsin and the plant light-harvesting complex. Many of his successes resulted from his development of spot scan imaging to minimize beam-induced movement and dynamic focus correction to improve clarity. Numerous other contributions from Downing’s lab are equally highly regarded among the community of researchers who continue to improve the methods and physical understanding of electron microscopy. In 2014, a daylong scientific symposium celebrating his contributions to the field was held at Berkeley Lab in his honor.
In 2015, he was recognized (alongside Uli Dahmen and Peter Denes) with the Lab’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his role in making Berkeley Lab a global center for high-resolution imaging. Then-Director Paul Alivisatos cited the trio’s lifetime commitment to team science, which yielded world-leading instrumentation and discovery and made Berkeley Lab an acme of electron microscopy.
Downing is survived by his wife, Linda; daughters, Sonja and Valerie; and several grandchildren. In addition, he leaves behind a “professional family” of co-workers, colleagues, and peers around the world, as well as his many “scientific children”—students and postdocs he trained who have since established careers of their own. For example, Eva Nogales was Downing’s postdoc beginning in 1993, and together they conducted definitive TEM work that revealed the atomic structure of tubulin, which remains a focus of her group’s research.
Read more in this obituary published in the San Francisco Chronicle.