June 4, 1950 - July 19, 2014
Resident of Los Altos
Jerzy Jurka, biologist, pioneer in the field of mobile DNA, founder, president and director of research at Genetic Information Research Institute from 1994 to 2014, died July 19 at his home in Los Altos, California, at age 64.
Jerzy was born June 4, 1950 in the small village of Ponikiew in Poland, and grew up outside the town of Wadowice. He received his master's degree in theoretical chemistry at Jagiellonian University in 1973. The following year he accepted a position at the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Institute of Oncology in Gliwice. While in Gliwice he concurrently worked to complete his doctorate in molecular biology, which he received from the University of Warsaw in 1979. During this time, Jerzy sought opportunities beyond the iron curtain, accepting invitations as a visiting scientist in the laboratory of Prof. Dr. Manfred Eigen, a Nobel Laureate (Chemistry), at Max Planck Institute in Gottingen, Germany and at the Centre National de la Rocherche Scientifique in Paris, France. In 1982, acting on a joint invitation from Stockholm University and Karolinska Institute, Jerzy left Poland for Sweden shortly after martial law was imposed in Poland.
Jerzy immigrated to the United States along with his wife Elzbieta in 1983. After serving as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan and the University of Houston, he worked as a research fellow at Dana-Farber Institute / Harvard School of Public Health, where he published his seminal article "A fundamental division in the Alu family of repeated sequences." Alu elements and other transposable DNA elements would become the focus of Jerzy's research over the course of the following years. Jerzy eventually made his way to California where in 1987 he accepted a position at Bionet, one of the earliest bioinformatics community projects on the internet that was started as part of the GenBank public biosequence data project by Intelligenetics at Stanford University. Later, he joined the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine in Palo Alto and served as the assistant director of research for Linus Pauling from 1992 to 1994.
Following Pauling's death, Jerzy founded Genetic Information Research Institute in 1994. For two decades, he tirelessly built and maintained the most fundamental database of mobile DNA elements, Repbase, and published original research on newly discovered mobile DNA elements and their mechanisms and evolution. His passion and enthusiasm inspired many younger scientists to embark on careers to study mobile DNA. Jerzy helped foster the mobile DNA research community by organizing three international conferences at Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Peninsula in California.
Jerzy was known for his generosity, and helped countless young academics start their careers, many of them immigrants like himself. He was a passionate amateur historian and was known to energize any discussion about history, science or religion. He was also an avid chess player, connoisseur of music, and most of all, a loving husband and father. He is survived by his wife of 32 years, Elzbieta, his three sons, Michael, Matthew, and Timothy, daughter-in-law Julie, sisters Barbara and Ewa and brother Wladyslaw.
A Requiem mass was held on July 26, 2014 at St. Simon Catholic Church in Los Altos, CA, with Prof. William Mahrt leading the St. Ann Choir in Gregorian chants.
Published in San Jose Mercury News/San Mateo County Times on Aug. 31, 2014.