May 2012

Living through art and science

The first bursts of serious painting
But as life went on, tragedies struck. At those times of suffering, Schimke found himself turning to his boyhood passion of painting. His wife Mary died suddenly of cerebral hemorrhage in 1976.  After her death, "I decided I didn't want to do science," he said.

One day, while in England, where he had gone to do a sabbatical, Schimke walked down to a Camden Town flea market. There he discovered a set of pastels priced at 50 pence, “undoubtedly stolen from somewhere.” With these pastels in his hands, he felt he ought to do something with them. So he bought some good-quality paper and began to ease back into art.

When it came time for him to return to the U.S., Schimke realized the pastels were powdery and would brush off during the course of the journey. At this point, he decided to switch to oil paints because they lasted better and also because he had always loved to use them. He worked with oil paints for a while back in the U.S., but his laboratory got involved in work that would lead to the discovery of gene amplification. “That was something that brought me back into science in a big way,” he says. He returned to the laboratory in 1977.

In the mid-1980s, he experienced another artistic burst and left the laboratory. This time, he focused on placing natural products, such as eucalyptus and bamboo, on canvas so that their three dimensional shapes played with light and shadow.

But then his research group got involved in studying how mistakes in regulating the cell cycle caused gene amplification or cell death. Schimke returned to the laboratory to devote his time to the research.

The accident
In February 1995, on a Saturday afternoon, Schimke mounted his bike to cycle back home from the lab. Palo Alto, where Stanford University is, has mountains on its borders that reach up at least 3,000 feet, and Schimke often biked them. That day, he decided to go up halfway and take the long way home.

Around 2 p.m., Schimke was in a bike lane on Sand Hill Road in Woodside, a small town filled with redwood, oak and eucalyptus trees. The road had a T-intersection. “I was going to go straight in the T, but some bicyclists in front of me were going very slowly and were turning right,” says Schimke. “There was a car behind me whose driver thought I was part of that group and was going to turn as well. She started to make a turn, and her tire hit me.”

Schimke has a few hazy memories of the next few moments. “I remember vaguely, very vaguely, somebody talking to me and putting me on a stretcher. The next thing I remember was the doors to the emergency ward at Stanford University opening up,” he says. “The next thing I remember somebody saying, ‘Do you know somebody to call?’” Schimke was aware enough to tell them to call his current wife, Patricia Jones, Stanford’s vice provost for faculty development and diversity.

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I had the great privilege of a personal tour of Robert's studio and home about 5 years ago while visiting Palo Alto. I was very impressed with the level of dedication he shows in all of his artistic endeavors. Hundreds of wonderful necklaces line the hallway. The shear volume of work is impressive by itself. His painting studio is one to be envied by any artist frustrated with a lack of production space. The visual energy he creates is all about the place as many canvases hang on the walls in view, while others lie about on the floor in mid production. Paint is literally everywhere. His growth as an artist can be traced through the many paintings and each new one seems to be more impressive than the one before. As an artist myself I understand the the creative "carrot on a stick" that his process and artistic journey represents. It boils down to "If you think that one was good, wait till you get a look at my next one". Proud nephew, Matt Bazemore


I have been a close friend, and colleague, of Bob Schimke for many years. He is an exceptionally dedicated individual, whatever he does. I have enjoyed our frequent visits together, in recent years. I greatly enjoyed reading this article in ASBMB Today. Schimke is a wonderful person, it has been wonderful knowing him and interacting with him. Charles Yanofsky


Life without appreciation of at least some forms of art, be it literature, music, painting, sculpture or others, is not worth living. A person who can be creative in both science and art is doubly blessed. We hope that Prof. Schimke will go on shining in his present creative phase for a long time to come and will produce many more of those beautiful paintings for us to admire. I especially liked his 'Four Seasons' and 'Orange Red'.


It is wonderful to see such an inspiring article about a great scientist who has contributed so much to the biological sciences and to learn that, despite adversity, he has a second career as an artist. Keep it up Bob! All the best Dick Hanson


My undergrad Bio mentor, the late J. Fred (Paulo) Dice, did his PhD work with Schimke at Stanford, and I thus have a lineage connection with Bob, although I never met him. However, I read many of his papers, and I still have in my file cabinet a classic paper of his on measuring protein turnover and calculating the fractional catabolic rate and half-life. I am pleased to hear about his life after Science, and his artwork. I particularly liked his painting "Genetics". Jonathan D. Smith, Cleveland Clinic



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