Michael Botchan: A steady presence at Berkeley who drove major change

May 13, 2024

Michael Botchan is the dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley and a professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and structural biology. On June 30, Botchan will step down as dean and start a new life as faculty emeritus in the Graduate Division and senior advisor at the Innovative Genomics Institute. The prospect of a calmer role appears to delight him.

“Being dean is a 24/7 job,” said Botchan. “I'm looking forward to having more spare time and traveling with my family.”

In his Durant Hall office, Botchan exhibited the calm, contemplative manner of someone embarking on the next phase of life after a long and rewarding career. His mentally stimulating work allowed him to guide generations of students and collaborate with some of the world’s sharpest minds.

Berkeley has profoundly changed since Botchan first stepped onto campus in 1966, as have the biological sciences. Botchan reflected on the highlights and remaining challenges in an hour-long interview with UC Berkeley writer Alexander Rony.

How has your final year as dean differed from the rest of your time in that position?

It's a bittersweet experience in the sense that I love being dean, and I love this institution, but it's ending. What's different about this last year is that I'm involved in making sure that things are sustainable and that the next team doesn't have problems that I created and didn't solve. It's exciting because I see the accomplishments and what is still in process.

Why did you pursue a profession in academia?

I felt the desire to become a scientist quite early in my life. I was probably eight or nine. I was interested in how things worked and what the natural world had hidden that could be unraveled by science.

My parents didn't pressure me to become a medical doctor, but it's sort of a truism that many Jewish moms and grandparents want their kids to be one. The compromise was to become a medical scientist, though that slowly disappeared. I became interested in physics and math in high school. Complexity is the basis of biological organisms, and our brain is the most complex machine in the universe. That may someday reveal new concepts in physics.

You took a summer zoology course at Berkeley and knew you wanted to go here for graduate school. What attracted you to this university?

The physical beauty of the place attracted me and my wife at once. It wasn't dense the way it is now in terms of people and parking. The flowers were spectacular, and the hills and sunsets were unbelievable. This place seemed so rural compared to what I had seen in New York City, yet there were Nobel laureates walking around. I was in awe of how this intellectual environment merged with such natural beauty. It was an epiphany for me.

What are you especially proud of in your career?

I'm proud of so many things, but if I had to pick one, I would say it was the graduate students I trained who went on to become great scientists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. That's my legacy as a scientist.

There have been many changes during my tenure as dean. For many years, the Department of Integrative Biology was disconnected from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. As dean, I learned a lot about integrative biology and how amazing that group is. It's another jewel in our crown.

The two departments now are greater than the sum of parts. They see the value that each brings to the division within the college. There are people in molecular and cell biology who could just as easily be in integrative biology, and I'm very proud that I participated in making that happen.

The new Department of Neuroscience is a great change. Neuroscience has now evolved to include way more than just molecular neuroscience — people from psychology, engineering, and bioengineering really needed a full department.

You also have been focused on elevating students’ experience at Berkeley and have expressed great pride in the SEED Scholars program. How did that effort come about?

When I was a graduate student here, protests and change were part of our ethos. The civil rights movement peaked in that era, but then it went into hibernation. Long before it became a campus-wide initiative at the chancellor's level, I decided I wanted to do something for African American and Hispanic high school students who were deprived of the educational opportunities that I had. Our division had sponsored the wonderful Biology Scholars Program, but UC Berkeley had no honors program that spans all STEM fields and directly recruits promising high school students with a desire to give back to their communities and a commitment to graduate education.

It was a team effort. We started a program called SEED Scholars that came about through Ed McCleskey and Priscilla Chan at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and others here at UC Berkeley, including Oscar Dubon, then the Vice Chancellor for Equity & Inclusion, and Professor Jamie Cate, now the faculty head of SEED Scholars.

We didn't have a culture where these students would feel welcomed. The program got them into labs right away. Once a teenager discovers what it's like to make a discovery in the lab, it's addictive. It was an exciting vision, but it's been hard to get it into place. Achieving scale is difficult at Berkeley; we're a huge institution. The recruitment of Ira Young as a full-time director for the program put the formation of a vibrant team of mentors in place.

The SEED Scholars program is now in other people's hands. There has been a real change in the way we approach diversity, equity, and inclusion and how we recruit. I think that we are now a leader in that many faculty are recruiting in successful ways.

Michael Botchan leans on his hand at a table in front of a crowded bookshelf
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I was in awe of how this intellectual environment merged with such natural beauty.
Michael Botchan on his first impression of UC Berkeley
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Michael Botchan (top row, center) is surrounded by dozens of Cal alums making "C" signs with their right hands
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There has to be some inner core where you get satisfaction out of what you're doing.
Michael Botchan
Michael Botchan leans on a table in front of a wooden bookshelf
Michael Botchan gestures with his hands in front of a wooden bookshelf
Michael Botchan rests his hand on a table in front of a wooden bookshelf
Michael Botchan smiles while seated in his Durant Hall office