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In Memoriam: Distinguished Professor and Founding Dean of Biological Sciences Eduardo Macagno.

December 4, 2023

By Mario Aguilera

An eminent scientist and academic leader, Macagno built an esteemed career through significant contributions in multiple aspects of research, education, administration and mentorship. Joining UC San Diego in 2001 after nearly four decades at Columbia University, Macagno made an immediate impact through his leadership of Biological Sciences. After stepping down as dean in 2006, Macagno continued to make lasting contributions to the university through his service on several initiatives that spanned research and education. He also was a tireless champion for equity, diversity and inclusion, particularly through projects that created opportunities for underrepresented students across campus.

Born in San Juan, Argentina, in 1943, Macagno moved with his family to the United States in 1956. He received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Iowa in 1963. Although he received his PhD in physics from Columbia University in 1968, he switched fields to neurobiology as a postdoctoral researcher. He established his own lab and served on the Columbia faculty until 2000. While there, he rose in the university’s leadership to the positions of Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

A major contributor to the field of neural development and neural regeneration, Macagno’s research focused on the connections made between neurons and with their targets. He was a leader in the use of serial-section electron microscopy to study neuronal circuits, discovering “pioneer fibers” that form the first cells in the optic nerves of the water flea. A strong proponent of the use of simple model systems, he also made a significant impact with his foundational studies on the formation of the nervous system in the medicinal leech. Macagno was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an early recipient of a Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award. From 2008 to 2020, he served as the editor-in-chief of the journal Developmental Neurobiology.

Macagno also was instrumental in pioneering an interdisciplinary area at the intersection of architecture and neuroscience. Through collaborations at UC San Diego, the Salk Institute and other institutions, he investigated the impact of built environments on human physical and mental health. In 2003 he co-founded the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. 

Macagno was selected as the first dean of Biological Sciences at UC San Diego due to his pioneering research contributions, ability to work across disciplines and reputation as a gifted administrator. Macagno leveraged his vast knowledge and experience to structure the young division for future growth and success. He helped lead several key faculty and administrative hires that enhanced the vibrant and multidisciplinary nature of Biological Sciences. Also, while Dean and subsequently, he actively promoted initiatives to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the community.

Headshot of Professor Eduardo Macagno

Macagno's impact on education at UC San Diego included creative initiatives within and beyond the classroom. He served as a founding faculty member of Sixth College, contributing his extensive knowledge as a member of the college’s Executive Committee. According to Sixth College Provost Lakshmi Chilukuri, Macagno was one of the college’s most involved members and staunchest supporters.

Working with Professor Terry Gaasterland and Associate Professor Brenda Bloodgood, Macagno initiated Summer Transfer Ahead into Research Training (START), a summer mentoring program for underrepresented and first-generation transfer students. He later worked with Bloodgood and Associate Teaching Professor Ashley Juavinett in launching STARTneuro, a version of the program that focuses on underrepresented transfer students interested in neurosciences. Macagno also worked with Teaching Professor Stephanie Mel and several of their colleagues in creating BILD 60, a course that examines equity, diversity and inclusion issues under a biological sciences lens. The continuing success and value of STARTneuro and BILD 60 are excellent examples of Macagno's enduring legacy for students at UC San Diego.

Macagno is survived by his wife and colleague Laura Wolszon; their children, Francesco and Lucia Macagno; his sister, Laura Macagno-Shang; his nieces, Camille and Natalie Montilino and Jamie Wolszon; and his nephews, Sidney Payne and Joshua Wolszon.

In Memoriam

To honor his life and legacy, contributions are welcome to the Eduardo Macagno Scholarship fund, which will support STARTneuro students. 

A memorial event honoring Macagno’s life will be held at 1 p.m. on December 9 in the Atkinson Pavilion at UC San Diego’s Ida and Cecil Green Faculty Club. Registration for those attending the event and Zoom information for those who cannot are available at the Eduardo Macagno Event Brite page.


When I think about my undergraduate experience at UC San Diego, I have always felt so lucky to have had such an incredible mentor.

I met Dr. Macagno in 2015 through the pilot year of the START program, a summer neuroscience training program he founded that serves historically underrepresented, incoming transfer students in STEM starting their journey at UCSD. Under his mentorship that summer, it was very apparent to me that I would not be going through my journey alone and I had gained the best support I needed for what lay ahead. He taught me and his research students the qualities of being a great scientist. He taught me to persist through challenges I would encounter and that there were opportunities to learn in any outcome faced. Above all, he taught me that science is more beneficial when we make efforts to be inclusive, care for each other, and better understand each other.

Dr. Macagno was extraordinary in his ability to instill confidence in students and make us feel that we truly belonged in science. His example encourages us to take up space while also advocating for opportunities for others in our path. He led his teaching and mentorship with compassion for students and to make the world a better place.

His legacy endures in all the students that he mentored. He paved the way for many who follow him and his impact will live in the futures of his students. Every student deserves to have an incredible mentor as I had. It is hard for me to believe that I would be so lucky to encounter another mentor as great as Dr. Eduardo Macagno; however I am thankful for his example for us all that being a compassionate and caring educator can change the world for the better.

— Oliva Mota Segura, Eduardo Macagno’s former student

Here are some thoughts I'd like to share on behalf of Sixth College and of myself. It doesn't even begin to cover all that Eduardo did for Sixth or meant to me/us but it is a start.

Professor Macagno was one of the founding faculty of Sixth College and one of its most involved members and staunchest supporters. He was an active member of the Sixth College Executive Committee and shared his considerable wisdom and extensive knowledge of Sixth's history with us. He was incredibly generous with his time, attending many Sixth events and meeting staff, faculty, and students to share their curiosity and his enthusiasm.

The design of Sixth's new location at the North Torrey Pines Living Learning Neighborhood benefited greatly from his involvement in the early stages of planning the college where he combined his passion for equity and diversity with his expertise and interest in the intersection of architecture and neuroscience. In recent years, he was part of a research endeavor in collaboration with Sixth College and the NTPLLN architects to understand how a location planned with pre-pandemic goals of interaction and community could and did pivot to achieving the same goals under the constraints of COVID-19.

I have known Professor Macagno from my days as a lecturer in the Division of Biology and have learned much from his unassuming yet firm advocacy for diversity, equity, and inclusion. He was a gentle soul with a kind word and the right touch of humor in all occasions. He was much admired, and we will miss him greatly.

— Lakshmi Chilukuri, Provost, Sixth College, UC San Diego

My first interaction with Eduardo was about six years ago, when I was interviewing for my current position.

I was giving a teaching demonstration about neurotransmission. First of all, it's quite unusual for faculty to attend these. They are, by definition, geared towards undergraduates, but Eduardo cared so deeply about the culture of his department as well as the quality of our teaching, and so he was there.

After I finished explaining how neurons communicate via chemical signals, Eduardo raised his hand. I’d been so afraid of this moment, when the foundational experts in the room would challenge my grasp of the concepts that they literally wrote about in our textbooks. But here that moment was, from one of those experts, who I couldn’t believe even took the time to be there.

“What about gap junctions?” he asked.

Even though gap junctions are ubiquitous – they’re in vertebrates and invertebrates, they’re in your brains and in your heart – they’re often overlooked. Gap junctions and the electrical signals that flow through them may not be as fancy as chemical signaling by famed neurotransmitters such as dopamine or serotonin, but they’re efficient and they’re often there first, developmentally speaking. For decades, Eduardo was a fierce advocate for these important yet overlooked structures in neurons – my teaching demonstration was no exception.

Eduardo cared quite about a bit about things that were underappreciated. He spent the bulk of his life’s work on a rather unusual animal model, the medicinal leech. More than 40 years ago, when he was a professor at Columbia, he wrote one of the first papers describing the organization of the leech nervous system. This early work supported decades of researchers who, like Eduardo, saw the leech as an underutilized model organism for our evolving understanding of neural circuits.

This attention to overlooked parts of the world extended beyond his research. A few years before I started my job here, Eduardo created a program called START (Summer Transfer Ahead into Research Training) with NSF funding that he obtained. With Terry Gaasterland and Brenda Bloodgood, Eduardo spent three summers mentoring transfer students from underrepresented populations in STEM who were interested in research. Although transfer students make up almost a third of our student population, they too are often overlooked. Eduardo not only worked with these students over the summer, but also took several under his wing in his lab. Most of the 32 original START students are now in industry, graduate programs, or health professions.

In 2020, Eduardo, Brenda, and I obtained funding to launch a new START, with a focus on neuroscience paths. Through this program, I’ve had the honor of watching him share his enthusiasm about leeches and everything he’s discovered about their inner workings. For the past three summers, Eduardo has spent multiple weeks working directly with students, always the first one in the lab and the last one out.

Given our first interaction, Eduardo intimidated me for quite a bit. But over time, I learned that he appreciated a bad joke almost as much as a de-noised electrophysiology rig, and a fine bottle of wine just as much as a clearly filled Retzius cell. When I received the notification that I earned tenure during one of our leech experiments, he grinned and gave me a huge high five.

Although Eduardo was initially there to watch me, I had been watching him ever since. I witnessed the precision with which he fixed an electrical rig, the patience he had with students, the consistency with which he showed up. I observed the deep, relentless passion he had for the tiniest structures in the most unusual model organism alongside the deep, relentless care he had for our students. I saw how he offered me lab space – ever an advocate – so that I could test some of our experiments for the students. He had more decades of experience than any one on the STARTneuro leadership team but never flaunted it, only offering his opinion when asked. He knew what it meant to create space for other people to thrive, not only students, but also younger colleagues like me.

I am a better educator and a fiercer advocate for having known him, and I am so grateful for our time together.

— Ashley Juavinett, Associate Teaching Professor, Department of Neurobiology, School of Biological Sciences, UC San Diego

I am saddened by Eduardo’s sudden passing. Eduardo was a wonderful person and human being. His kindness and friendliness will be missed by many. Eduardo was a true gentleman and it is hard to fathom that he has passed. I recall well the dynamic times of growth in our Division when Eduardo became our Founding Dean. He will be sorely missed.

— Julian Schroeder, Professor, Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, School of Biological Sciences, UC San Diego

I did not know Eduardo well, but I just wanted to comment on his passion for improving the lives of people who are often marginalized or disenfranchised. In November 2019 I signed up take part in a workshop titled "Men as Aspiring Allies for Gender Equity.”

Eduardo was the only person I recognized in the room, so we spent the 2 hour period working together - talking about privilege and how we might act to help others. I was struck by how passionate and knowledgeable Eduardo was on the topics that came up. I feel very lucky that I was able to work with him during that time, benefiting from him.

Although I did not know him well, I feel that there is now a large hole in our Biology family that will be impossible to fill.

— James Cooke, Associate Teaching Professor, Department of Neurobiology, School of Biological Sciences, UC San Diego

I am so sad to hear about the passing of Eduardo Macagno. Eduardo was a gentleman and a scholar, a true scientist. As our first Dean, Eduardo did a tremendous amount of foundational innovation in establishing the Division of Biological Science, setting up all the structures and higher level positions and committees of the Division, including forming the initial outside corporate board that advises the Dean. Before that we were a department with little contact with the outside world beyond academia. He set us on our path to success as a Division, now School.

I believe Eduardo should also be valued highly for his strong support for getting a diverse faculty. He always backed me up in CDB hiring meetings and CDB is making very good progress in achieving a more representative faculty. The Division definitely has done so too. Eduardo also ran diversity student programs in his lab in the summers among the first in Bio Sci to do so. Others can describe his many other diversity contributions at the campus level.

In sum, Dr. Eduardo Macagno, in addition to his major contribution to establishing the Division of Biological Sciences at UCSD, was a pioneer in fostering Diversity in BioSciences.

I will miss him. He's gone too soon.

— Douglass Forbes, Professor, Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, School of Biological Sciences, UC San Diego

Eduardo was very involved in Sixth College Executive Committee as one of our board members. Every year he would attend our committee meetings and events as well as our annual Chancellor’s Breakfast. He will truly be very missed, he was such a genuinely good person.

— Naomi Chavez, Operations and Program Analyst, Sixth College, UC San Diego