Skip to main content

Melvin Green


Mel Green was recruited to the Department of Biology as an Assistant Professor in 1963. He joined a group of four prominent professors – David Bonner, Jon Singer, Jack DeMoss and Stanley Mills -- in a department founded by David Bonner only three years before. Mel was a very young – just 26 – but accomplished biochemist and molecular biologist who had been mentored by a brilliant physical chemist/biochemist, Ben Hall, at the University of Illinois. He came to UCSD after a year of postdoctoral research in Renato Dulbecco’s lab at Caltech. Mel was thrilled to come to the UCSD campus -- he was convinced that this brand new university was the most exciting place to be for a molecular biologist and was looking forward to being part of a scientifically stimulating and innovative environment. He was also greatly inspired by David Bonner’s personality, his infectious enthusiasm for molecular biology, and his unique administrative talent that recognized that “rules are made to be broken.”

Early on in his studies, Mel was fascinated by viruses and their dual ability to behave as chemicals and living organisms -- a link between the living and non-living worlds, as he put it -- but his ultimate target was understanding cancer, the most formidable disease of our time. His doctoral research was focused on gene transcription of bacterial viruses using the DNA:RNA hybridization reaction pioneered by his thesis advisor Ben Hall. He used this technology in his post-doctoral research at Caltech to investigate the process of cancer causation by polyoma virus. Mel considers his discovery of polyoma and SV40 viral chromatin in 1969 his most important contribution to molecular biology.

In 1964, Mel’s lab moved from its temporary location at SIO Sverdrup Hall to the newly built Bonner Hall and two postdocs started working in his lab. Several graduate students interested in molecular biology soon joined them. One of them, recruited by David Bonner via a friend in Japan, was Susumu Tonegawa. Susumu started his thesis research in 1964 with Mel and later continued his work with Professor Masaki Hayashi. Years of hard work, creativity and scientific courage brought Susumu a Nobel Prize in 1987. Reflecting on his scientific career, Sususmu Tonegawa later observed: “I was trained very well in the basic procedures of molecular biology at UC San Diego. This was an extremely powerful approach for my later studies.”

After two decades of intensive research in his lab, Mel began taking more and more interest in teaching. He had always enjoyed sharing his knowledge with others -- be it weight lifting, tennis coaching, or tutoring in chemistry, math and physics in his younger days that allowed him to earn enough money to go to college. Teaching came naturally to him, and getting to know his students, seeing their excitement in learning new things, and their progress was very rewarding. He started with teaching virology to graduate students and then, after undergraduates arrived on campus, per Bonner’s suggestion, he became Stanley Mill’s TA for “Natural Science 2E” – the core biology course requirement for all Revelle students. The next challenge was organizing the first undergraduate lab course in York Hall, which initially was called USB – Undergraduate Science Building. Mel wrote the lab experiments, ordered lab supplies, hired TAs, and taught the course. Teaching students to do the kind of experiments that he was doing in his own lab, using sterile techniques and conducting quantitative analysis, proved to be a truly enjoyable process for Mel, and he went on to create many more courses in biology.

He constantly worked on honing his teaching skills and creating a climate of trust and creativity at his lectures. In his book Will It Be on the Exam? written with wisdom and kind humor, Mel created a memorable portrait gallery of his former students, many of whom, over time, became his personal friends. His philosophy of teaching was not merely lecturing on the subject, but creating a meaningful relationship with his students, mentoring them, and helping them reach their life aspirations.

Mel strongly believed in breaking barriers between faculty, students, and staff and even started the Faculty, Student and Staff Interaction Program, which provided a venue for a very informal and productive way to get to know one another. He set the example by playing tennis with his students and meeting with them for coffee and lunch. After retiring in 2001, he placed a sign in the Muir coffee shop that read, “Retired professor will advise for coffee.” He continued teaching for eight more years.

Mel dedicated a lot of thought and effort to helping first generation and underrepresented minority students. Coming from a family of immigrants whose education didn’t go beyond high school, he vividly remembered the days when he had to make important decisions about his education and future career without any parental advice. He realized that, as a university professor, he could make a tremendous difference in the lives of many talented kids who were facing the same predicament. That’s why he became the Director of Academic Enrichment Program (1994-1999) and Founding Director of the Hughes Scholar Program (2006-2009). Both programs assisted high school students, as well as UCSD students, in connecting with faculty, finding research opportunities, and successfully pursuing advanced degrees. He received the Revelle College Excellence in Teaching award in 1992 and UCSD Outstanding Instructor award in 2000.

In 2006, Mel created the Emeriti Mentor Program by mentoring five students on his own. His initiative was supported by Chancellor Fox and, by 2008, it grew into a multifaceted program of mentoring Chancellor’s Scholars – students from challenging backgrounds in need of guidance, professional advice, and just sympathetic friendly encouragement. The program has steadily grown to 50 emeriti mentors and over 100 mentees and has been highly successful and rewarding for both groups of participants. In recognition of his achievements after retiring, Mel received the Dickson Award from the UCSD Emeriti Association in 2013.

Looking back on his career, Mel considers his efforts to empower students in achieving their dreams among his most important and deeply satisfying contributions to the university. He thinks of UCSD as one of his own children -- the university has always had a very special place in his heart as he watched it grow, become a great place to do research, and turn into a world-class educational institution. “Being located in paradise is also nice,” he adds.

portrait placeholder