Fred Sherman, Major Contributor to Modern Genetics, Dies

September 18, 2013

 Fred Sherman, Ph.D., an internationally recognized scientist and a faculty member at the University of Rochester Medical Center since 1962, died on September 16 at the age of 81. Sherman, who served as chair of the Department of Biochemistry and then the merged Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics from 1982 until 1999, was one of only three URMC faculty members appointed to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Sherman performed groundbreaking research on the structure of genes and the effects of genetic mutations on proteins in yeast. He was also a proponent of the use of baker's yeast as a genetic model system. Research using yeast is now conducted at virtually all research centers worldwide, largely due to Sherman’s efforts and his teaching of many leaders in the field.

"It’s hard to overstate Fred’s contribution to modern genetics. His insights into how genetic mutations affect protein coding and his foresight of the utility of the yeast system quite literally changed the course of biological research,” said Jeffrey J. Hayes, Ph.D., chair of Biochemistry and Biophysics at URMC.  “Beyond his scientific accomplishments, Fred’s quick wit and sense of humor were legendary. It was always enjoyable to be in a room with Fred. He will be terribly missed."

Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics Mark E. Dumont, Ph.D., who started his tenure at URMC as a postdoctoral fellow in Sherman’s lab, echoes Hayes’ sentiments. Though Sherman was completely and utterly engaged in his science, Dumont says he had a lighthearted side: He was always ready to tell a joke – even in very serious settings – and never hesitated to do pirouettes in the hallway if the mood struck him. Sherman took ballet and attended aerobics classes at the Medical Center long into retirement.  

In 1985, Sherman received one of the highest honors bestowed upon any scientist – election to the National Academy of Sciences. The outstanding quality of his work in yeast genetics was further recognized when he was appointed chairman of the Genetics Division of the National Academy of Sciences, a position he held from 2000 to 2003. Just two other URMC scientists – Lynne E. Maquat, Ph.D., the J. Lowell Orbison Chair and Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and Porter W. Anderson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Pediatrics – are also members of the Academy. 

“Fred’s election to the National Academy of Sciences solidified his place amongst the most elite in genetics research,” said Mark B. Taubman, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine & Dentistry. “Biochemistry and Biophysics is an extremely strong scientific department thanks in large part to Fred’s dedication and belief in the importance of basic research. We’re very lucky that Fred chose the University of Rochester as his academic home for so many years.”

Other scientific honors include Sherman’s appointment as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, in 2006. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Minnesota in 2002 and both the George W. Beadle Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Genetics Society of America in 2006. From the Medical Center, Sherman received the Arthur Kornberg Research Award in 1999 and has been honored for his contributions with a lecture series in his name: URMC’s annual Fred Sherman Lecture has featured compelling speakers in the field of genetics for the past ten years.

Hayes says that Sherman was continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health for the whole of his career, a rather unique accomplishment that highlights Sherman’s direction of a robust research program that lasted nearly 50 years.  Dumont adds that numerous students and post doctoral associates from Sherman’s lab have gone on to make major scientific contributions and fill major academic and industrial positions around the world.

In addition to the research he led at the Medical Center, Sherman was well known for teaching the famous yeast course at Cold Spring Harbor with Gerald Fink, Ph.D., of the Whitehead Institute at MIT, for 17 years. According to Dumont, almost everyone who works in yeast genetics took the course at one time or another.  

In his book The Early Days of Yeast Genetics, Fink dedicates a chapter to Sherman in which he describes him as being “deadly serious” about the course and that he was “constantly inventing inexpensive gadgets for the course to substitute for the costly ones.” Fink also credits Sherman with singlehandedly bringing what could have been a mundane summer course life: “Fred, clad in ragged cutoffs, greeted the students each morning with a bow. Then, from a balletic pose that tilted somewhere between first and third position, he would grasp a student’s hand and escort him or her into the laboratory in a mock pas de deux. Once Fred began, there was no escape from his repartee. Even the most innocent greeting turned into a comedy routine.”

Sherman received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Minnesota and his Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of California at Berkeley. He conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Washington and the Lab Genetique, Gif-sur-Yvette, France.

He is survived by his wife, Elena Rustchenko-Bulgac, Ph.D., research associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the Medical Center; daughter, Rhea Sherman; son, Mark Sherman; six grandchildren; sister, Clarice Zuckman; and many nieces and nephews.  

Dr. Sherman’s family will receive friends on Friday, September 20, from 3-7 PM at the Michael R. Yackiw Funeral Home, 1650 Empire Blvd., Webster. On Saturday, friends may join his family for a graveside service gathering at the Mt. Hope Ave. entrance of Mt. Hope Cemetery at 11 AM.  In lieu of flowers, contributions may be directed to a fund to support the annual Fred Sherman Lecture. To donate please visit http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/biochemistry-biophysics and select "Make A Gift" and specify "Fred Sherman Lecture" or mail donations to: Fred Sherman Lecture, Box 712, University of Rochester Medical Center, 601 Elmwood Ave., Rochester NY, 14642.

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