Follow Us

David R. Burgess, PhD

My father was a major influence on my early life. He was a Western Cherokee from Oklahoma who grew up living off and on with his grandmother, a medicine woman. When he was in his early teens, being the oldest, he left home due to the Great Depression and ended up in New Mexico. My father was in World War II, and in many ways my family owes a great deal to that war. Not only was it a great equalizer for minorities, but it also provided the GI Bill, which enabled my father to go to college in New Mexico. He became a high school mathematics and science teacher and a coach. When I was young I went to grammar school with Mexican-Americans, Anglos and Native Americans. For entertainment we would go to rodeos or pow-wows, where my father occasionally danced. While not wealthy by any measure, we were not truly poor. When I was ten years old we moved from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Santa Rosa, California. It was distinctly different in California, and the American Indian and Southwestern cultural presence was replaced by a very traditional Anglo-American culture. My father became a principal of a junior high school serving Mexican-Americans, Native Americans and African-Americans, and because of his commitment, life experiences and ability to relate to others, he became an honored educator. His commitment to serve others left a lasting imprint on my life. I am proud to be an American Indian scientist and love to work with students and others interested in science.
I was not a great student, but my high school biology teacher, Mr. Rathman, really took an interest in me and made me feel like I could make it through. My performance in high school was okay, but not good enough to get me into the university. Since the university was too expensive anyway, I went to a community college instead. I first thought I wanted to become a dentist, so I took science courses as a freshman and sophomore. It was at Santa Rosa Junior College where I was mentored, again by a biology teacher. Mr. Nixon not only expected good work but also took a personal interest in students. I didn’t do too well in college until I transferred to a four-year college, California State Polytechnic College (Cal Poly). Again, a great teacher took me under his wing and I was able to blossom as a student. At this time, I decided I wanted to become a scientist because I loved the study of cells. I ended up getting a master’s degree under the direction of Dr. Ron Ritschard at Cal Poly who gave me great career advice and support. I then transferred to University of California, Davis for my Ph.D., and again had the fortune of being mentored by a great person, Dr. Robert Grey.
I work in a sub-area of cell biology that deals with how cells change shape or form. I am particularly interested in what goes on in the cell’s cytoskeleton, a structure much like our own skeleton, which is meant to support the cell and give it form. However, the cytoskeleton has another function. The fibers that make up the cytoskeleton are used to move the cell, change its shape and move material from one part of the cell to another. The cytoskeleton is intimately involved with cell division, which is called mitosis. There are many things happening during mitosis, such as the separation of the duplicated chromosomes and the pinching in of the cell membrane to separate the two daughter cells. Moving things around requires motors, and the cell has built-in molecular motors. When you think of a motor maybe you think of an engine in a car, the electric motor of an elevator lifting people up to the 9th floor, or the motors in a dam that are used to convert water energy into electrical energy. One of the functions of a motor is to convert energy into motion, which is exactly what a molecular motor does. Using the fibers, or tracks, of the cytoskeleton of a cell, molecular motors enable the cell to undergo mitosis. The motors perform many functions. Some move the chromosomes apart and others constrict the dividing cell, with a muscle-like constricting belt, into two new cells. Amazing. In my laboratory here in Boston, and also working at the Marine Biological Laboratory, I examine these molecular motors and try to figure out how exactly they accomplish their task during mitosis.
My life as a scientist has been truly exciting and has allowed me to meet many people, travel, and live in a variety of places. In addition, I have served on the faculty at Dartmouth College, the University of Miami School of Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh, where I chaired the department, and at Boston College. In addition, I first joined SACNAS in 1979 and served as its President from 1998-2000. In all of my jobs I have tried to be involved in efforts to create opportunities for minorities in the sciences.

Elected Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science 2004
Elected Fellow of American Society for Cell Biology 2017
Updated April 3, 2018