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In Memoriam: Percy J. Russell

February 12, 2014

 Dr. Percy Russell
Percy Russell lab, UC San Diego School of Medicine

Percy J. Russell, who joined the UC San Diego biological sciences faculty in 1969 and worked tirelessly in later decades at the School of Medicine to recruit and train new generations of scientists from communities not well represented in the sciences, died January 30, 2014 at his home in Del Mar. He was 87 years old.

Russell was an emeritus professor of biological sciences, an emeritus associate dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine and former director the Research Methods Training Laboratory, which provided students with their basic training in biochemistry.

“In all of those positions, Dr. Russell dedicated his life to mentoring students, expanding opportunities for those from minority groups and working to make UC San Diego a more diverse campus,” said Bill McGinnis, Dean of the Division of Biological Sciences. “As a research scientist, he focused his studies on enzymes, working on the structure and function of adenylate kinase.”

Russell was born May 29, 1926 in New York City, NY. He graduated in 1950 with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from College of the City of New York; received a Master’s of Arts degree in organic chemistry from Brooklyn College in 1955 and a doctorate in biochemistry from Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in 1959.

After positions at the Sloan-Kettering Institute, Harvard University and the University of Kansas, Russell joined the UC San Diego Department of Biology and spent the next 22 years (he retired in 1991) conducting basic research, but also devoting much time and attention to teaching undergraduate and medical school students – and working to increase diversity on campus and in laboratories. Specifically, he was an influential force in four programs:

  • UC San Diego’s Cancer Center Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences, an on-going program in which eight to 10 freshmen, sophomores and community college transfer students from underserved populations receive eight weeks of summer laboratory and classroom training in the biomedical and behavioral sciences, followed by participation in the laboratories of UC San Diego cancer research mentors during the school year. To date, 131 students have been trained through the CURE program.
  • The Cancer Center Creating Scientists to Address Cancer Disparities program, which offers 15 to 18 local community college students planning to transfer to UC San Diego with eight summer weeks of laboratory and classroom training in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. After which, they participate in UC San Diego research mentors’ labs during the school year.
  • The UC San Diego School of Medicine Undergraduate Research Methodology Training Laboratory, a summer and year-long program for community college and undergraduate students. Since 2006, 172 students have acquired their laboratory research skills under the guidance of Russell. Ninety-eight percent of students in the program graduate with a BA/BS; 58 percent enter graduate or professional school.
  • The Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, in which 12 to 15 Mesa College students participate in a UC San Diego eight-week summer training program, with most students continuing to work in mentors’ labs during the school year.

Among Russell’s awards are the 1986 Outstanding Achievement Award from the National Organization of Black Chemists and Engineers; the 1988 Medical Education Award from the Black Medical Students Association of the University of California, Irvine and the 1990 Mickey Leland Outstanding Achievement Award from the San Diego chapter of the National Medical Association.

Russell is survived by his son, Keith, and his wife, Kiki Devries; his daughter, Kim Russell, and her husband, Malvin Titus; five grandchildren: Augustus Percival Russell, Brian Nicholson, Brina Griffith, Brandon Russell and Briana Russell; and great-grandson Vailen Russell.

The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Dr. Russell’s memory to the UniversityLink Medical Science Program. Donations to this fund can be made online at Checks can also be made payable to the UC San Diego Foundation, with “UniversityLink Medical Science Program” in the memo, and mailed to 9500 Gilman Drive #0940, La Jolla, CA 92093-0940.