A Passion for Unconventional Science
“I’d rather not just throw another little bit into a giant vat,” said Gus Gurley ’78, ’83. “I support areas missed by mainstream thinking. Even scientists develop herd instincts and come to accepted orthodoxy. [I like to take] a less conventional approach.”
In 2009, Gus and his wife, Meg, were among the first to back the emerging field of theoretical and quantitative biology at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP). Their endowment — the Susan F. Gurley Chair in Theoretical Physics and Biology — was established in honor of Gus’s mother, who fell in love with biology. Now almost a decade later, the Gurleys continue to boost resources for KITP and the Division of Mathematical, Life, and Physical Sciences at UC Santa Barbara.
“Gus has been very instrumental in supporting new ventures outside the comfort zone,” explained Boris Shraiman, KITP permanent member and Gurley chairholder. “Gus took interest and supported our venture into population genetics, using physics ideas to study dynamics of evolution. He also helped us with getting started with a lab, bridging theory and experiment.”
Those ventures spawned some impressive results. Shraiman and Richard Neher, former postdoctoral fellow at KITP, used ideas from A Passion for Unconventional Science Gus Gurley ’78, ’83 chooses KITP for his unique investments physics to come up with a new way of forecasting influenza evolution. Neher then teamed up with Trevor Bedford (who came to KITP for the subsequent evolutionary dynamics program), and together they developed a cloud-based flu surveillance and prediction tool called “nextflu.” Bedford and Neher are now collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’m proud of how this research went on,” said Shraiman. “It’s exactly the way KITP is supposed to function, both in generating ideas and facilitating interactions between people — serving as a germinator of projects that go and acquire their own life.”
Shraiman and the KITP community are what continue to attract Gus to campus. His connection to UC Santa Barbara began as an undergraduate in the College of Creative Studies, where he studied physics; it was then that he met Virgil Elings, a former physics professor who later became his business partner.
Gus obtained his master’s degree in scientific instrumentation from UCSB before co-founding Digital Instruments (DI) with Elings. The duo pioneered scanning probe microscopes, which enable scientists to view materials at the atomic level. DI merged with Veeco Instruments in 1998 and since that time, Gus keeps busy with research and by serving on the KITP Director’s Advisory Cabinet and the UC Santa Barbara Foundation Board of Trustees.
“Gus has been a consistent supporter of our evolving KITP programming at the interface of physics and biology,” said KITP Director Lars Bildsten. “He was also the first investor in our project that became the Charles T. Munger Physics Residence and has supported the career development of KITP postdoctoral scholars by enabling their travel to conferences to present their work. We are incredibly grateful for his friendship and shared passion for exploring new scientific frontiers.”
“Gus is an amazing individual,” added Shraiman. “He’s fun to be with; he comes around and we just talk science. [Gus] has remarkably broad interests, which go from neuroscience to quantum information and entanglement. I’m honored to think of myself as his friend.”
The Shraiman-Gurley friendship is 15 years in the making. Together with Bildsten and others in the KITP community, the group resembles one big, happy family of physicists.
“KITP is well-established internationally in terms of being a premier place for holding conferences and getting people to collaborate,” said Gus. “I support [KITP] because I know the people.”