Remembering Alexander Glazer, former director of the UC Natural Reserve System

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An eminent molecular biologist, Alexander Glazer served as director of the UC Natural Reserve System from 1998 to 2009. Image: courtesy Judy Glazer

By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

Alexander Glazer, an award-winning molecular biologist whose concern for the environment led him to serve as director of the University of California Natural Reserve System, has died at 86. His daughter Judy confirmed his death on July 18, in his Orinda home.

Glazer was an unlikely candidate to lead the University’s network of field stations and protected natural lands. Having retired in 1994 to become a professor of the graduate school at UC Berkeley, Glazer had already amassed a long list of scientific honors. Yet in 1998, Glazer put his name in the hat to rescue an organization in deep financial distress.

The NRS was established by the UC Regents in 1965 with no dedicated funding. By the late 1990s, the Systemwide Office headquarters of the NRS was operating on monetary fumes. Donations had been spent, and no prospects of additional support were on the horizon. “The NRS was in a death spiral,” recalls Dan Costa, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. 

No wonder, then, that Glazer’s application to be NRS director surprised the hiring committee. Then Glazer proceeded to dazzle the committee with his force of personality, incisive intelligence, and overarching vision for the NRS. It was a combination that, leavened by a dry sense of humor, Glazer would wield to the benefit of the NRS for the next 11 years.

“He did it because saw that natural places were increasingly rare and threatened, and admired the UC Natural Reserve System as a place where you can make thoughtful manipulations and see how nature works,” says UC Berkeley biology professor Mary Power, who chaired the committee that hired Glazer.

“It was his swan song, a way to contribute to the University on a different level,” Costa says.

Glazer’s administrative acumen sealed the deal for the committee. As co-chair of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, he had been in involved in a major reorganization of the biological sciences at UC Berkeley, and helped raise some $75 million to support the biological sciences.

“He understood how the UC system works. He understood the levers of power,” Costa says. “Almost as soon as he walked in the door, he saw what we had to do. And he basically turned it around.”

“He was wholeheartedly dedicated to the NRS and did much to safeguard and enhance the system,” says Chen Yin Noah, who worked as associate director of the NRS alongside Glazer.

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Alexander Glazer during his time as a professor at UC Berkeley.

Glazer came to the NRS after a globetrotting life. Born in Poland in 1935, Glazer and his mother immigrated to Australia after World War II. He went on to earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Sydney. He and his wife Eva, who trained as a physician, married in 1958 and went on to have two children. In addition to his wife and daughter Judy, Glazer is survived by a son, John, and four grandchildren.

As a graduate student in Australia, Glazer attended a lecture given by a University of Utah biochemist. The talk, plus the allure of the Southwest’s desert landscapes, inspired Glazer to earn a doctorate at the university in 1960. After postdoctoral fellowships at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, Glazer joined the faculty of the UC Los Angeles School of Medicine in 1964, moving to UC Berkeley in 1976.

In the 1970s, Glazer began focusing his research on phycobiliproteins, the light-harvesting structures found in cyanobacteria and other microscopic aquatic organisms commonly referred to as algae. Phycobiliproteins contain antenna pigments that capture solar energy, enabling its conversion into the chemical energy needed to power cells. This reaction is the first step of photosynthesis.

After helping to deduce the structure of phycobiliproteins, Glazer refocused his research program to examine the architecture of these molecules. With this information, he helped develop a model explaining how phycobiliproteins transfer light energy to a reaction center in the cell with an astonishing 90 percent efficiency. His work also demonstrated that phycobiliproteins could be used as fluorescent tags to mark and sort living cells in the laboratory.

Glazer’s scientific interests continued to evolve throughout his life. From cyanobacteria photosynthesis, he moved into applied microbiology, coauthoring with Hiroshi Nikaido the first textbook to examine how microbes can be used to tackle societal concerns such as biofuels production, toxics remediation. This led him to studies on environmental problems such as nitrogen pollution and freshwater contamination.

“I see him as a flower bud starting from the specialization of biochemistry and blooming into this enormous, cosmic vision,” Power says.

These contributions to science earned Glazer numerous honors, including election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, two Guggenheim fellowships, the Darbaker Prize of the Botanical Society of America, and the Endeavor Prize of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

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One of Glazer’s many flower photos depicting a white columbine. Glazer took up nature photography as an outgrowth of his interest in the environment. Image: Alexander Glazer

Once appointed NRS Director, Glazer embarked on a multipronged effort to put the reserve system on more secure financial footing. Recognizing that UC had begun devolving all discretionary funds to campuses, he urged individual reserves to lobby their managing campuses for support.

“Alex trained us faculty to cultivate our administrators on the campuses,” says Susan Harrison. “Because the administrators on your campus will listen if faculty make enough noise.”

This approach, says Susan Harrison, faculty director of McLaughlin Natural Reserve, worked wonders for the five NRS reserves managed by UC Davis. “Once things start to run better and get more visibility, then you attract faculty support, and it takes less effort to keep momentum going. It’s a positive feedback cycle. Alex deserves a lot of credit for being our master strategist.”

To stabilize the NRS Systemwide Office, Glazer negotiated a process by which each campus with NRS reserves would contribute monies toward core functions of the network.

“He had a chess champion’s brilliant, strategic mind,” Noah says. Indeed, when Glazer’s high school chess team played the Australian national champion in simultaneous games, Glazer won his bout with the master.

“I recall him always thinking and strategizing about ways to achieve a goal, small or large. I believe this ability to think ten steps ahead and strategize helped him succeed in his role as NRS Director,” says Violet Nakayama, NRS legal and policy coordinator during Glazer’s tenure.

“Alex was the smartest person I’ve ever met. I was continually amazed at his ability to speak in paragraphs rather than the sentences and phrases most of us manage,” says Mike Dorward, NRS office manager under Glazer.

Glazer also had a lasting impact on the NRS’s fate within the UC Office of the President. When Glazer assumed the director’s position, the NRS was located in what is now the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. When it became clear the NRS was being overlooked, Glazer helped maneuver the organization into its present location, within the Division of Academic Affairs.

Yet Glazer never acted to further his own renown. “He was content to work behind the scenes to accomplish a goal, and it was not uncommon to hear someone say, “‘I don’t know how he did it, but I see the hand of Alex Glazer in this,’” says Al Muth, former director of Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center.

“It was inspiring to see him use all that intelligence and experience for the benefit of our little community of bunny and tree huggers,” Harrison says.

In his time off, Glazer loved nothing more than going hiking and camping with his family. Favorite sites included the red rock country of southwestern Utah, as well as Lassen Volcanic National Park. Glazer took up nature photography as well, producing formal compositions of subjects such as cactus skeletons and flowers. On the job, he relished every opportunity to visit the more than 30 reserves then in the NRS.

“Most of all, he respected the people of the NRS, especially the reserve managers and stewards. He enjoyed learning about the challenges of running the reserves and how to help them,” says daughter Judy Glazer.

Near the end of Glazer’s tenure at the NRS, budget problems at the UC Office of the President threatened the NRS yet again. Units that couldn’t justify their presence at the nerve center of the University were being moved to the campuses or closed. Glazer rallied the NRS’s Universitywide oversight committee to keep the NRS near the centers of UC influence.

“He reminded us that we were the [UC] President’s Advisory Committee, and we ultimately answer to the president of the system,” said Costa, who by then was chair of the committee.

To insulate the NRS against future reorganizations, Glazer reminded staff and faculty to hew toward the University’s three-pronged mission of university-level teaching, research, and public service. To that end, he commissioned a series of booklets demonstrating how the NRS fulfills each goal, encouraged reserves to analyze their visitor use, and encouraged outreach to stakeholders such as government agencies, land trusts, and other entities.

“He loved his time at the NRS. It brought together his love of science and the outdoors,” Judy Glazer says.

In addition to gaining more secure footing for the NRS, Glazer oversaw the adoption of four more reserves into the system—Sagehen Creek Field Station, Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve, Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, and Yosemite Field Station—and began planning for what is now Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center.

Glazer accomplished all of this while officially working half time for the reserve system. But in reality, “Alex essentially committed himself a hundred percent to the NRS,” Noah says. “His service to the NRS was truly a labor of love. We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.”

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