Gary M. Bokoch passed away last January, after a long struggle with kidney and cardiovascular illness. It is a testament to his strength of character and selflessness that he kept his illness largely a secret for years while soldiering on, until he passed away at age 55. Bokoch was a seminal figure in GTPase biology— for his discoveries, for founding meetings that put the young field on the map, for the impact he had on his colleagues and for the many young scientists that will tell stories about both his tangible and intangible support.
Growing up in Erie, Pa., Gary was the first scientist in his family. He was a graduate student with Peter W. Reed at Vanderbilt University, where he worked on neutrophil activation by chemotactic peptides. As a postdoctoral fellow, he worked with Nobel laureate Alfred Gilman, and purified and characterized the inhibitory component of adenylate cyclase, Gi. This began his focus on G proteins. His graduate and postdoctoral work led to seven first author papers in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, including four back-to-back papers on fundamental characterization of arachidonic acid pathways, and a Cell paper, which was the first to demonstrate cAMP-independent G protein participation in receptor-mediated signal transduction. Gary transitioned to independence in the laboratory of Charles Cochrane at the Scripps Research Institute, and rose through the ranks to become a professor in the departments of immunology and cell biology in 1998.
Gary’s work spanned such a broad range of topics that it is hard for anyone to appreciate his impact on all of the fields he touched. In general, he focused on GTPases, exploring a wide range of biological roles, with a major emphasis on neutrophil chemotaxis, the NADPH oxidase burst in leukocytes and regulation of the actin cytoskeleton. Gary’s group also made important contributions to fundamental aspects of GTPase biochemistry, including regulation of GTPase cycle components. He will be remembered for elucidating the role of Rac in NADPH oxidase function, Pak’s control of Lim kinase and myosin light chain kinase, GDI protein regulation and the role of GEF H1 in microbule-actin cross talk.
It is, perhaps, sad to summarize a person’s career with a few statistics, but Gary left some impressive ones behind. He published over 200 papers in top journals, over 40 review articles and book chapters and was presented with numerous awards, including National Institutes of Health graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, the Young Investigator Award from the Society for Leukocyte Biology, the Established Investigator Award from the American Heart Association, and a Visiting Scientist Fellowship from the Swedish National Research Council.
For those of us who knew Gary and watched him interact with his colleagues and friends, it is, of course, his personal side that we remember most. He had a quiet toughness and a wry sense of humor. As several folks in his lab said after his passing, he was also a big kid at heart whose lab was like a second family. After he passed away, his friends heard stories from people he barely knew who had received encouragement and support. Gary once famously donated his speaking slot at a meeting, on the spur of the moment, to a young investigator with exciting new data.
Gary’s career can be an example to all of us, and it is with sadness and an appreciation of his legacy and our great loss that we bid him farewell.
Friends and family have established a travel award in Gary’s name to send graduate students with financial need to the annual ASBMB meetings. Donations can be sent to ASBMB Gary Bokoch Travel Award 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814.
Klaus M. Hahn (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Thurman professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Feel free to add your reflections on Gary Bokoch in the comment section below.