HOTSEAT- Block-buster: Biological clockmeister nabs top UCLA job

Even though UVA provost Gene Block moved here in 1978, his wife, Carol, a medical technologist, always kept her California medical technologist license. Good thing. In December, Block was named chancellor of UCLA– sort of like the John Casteen of the west. 

"Too big, too good," was Block's reaction to the job offer; he'd always thought that if he was going to head a college, it would be a smaller institution– not California's largest campus with 38,000 students in the middle of America's biggest city.

"UCLA is an enormous biomedical research power," says Block, a biologist. "UCLA is more science oriented; UVA more humanities oriented."

Still, there are similarities. U.S. News & World Report ranks UVA number 24 and UCLA at 26 of the country's top colleges. Both schools are considered "public Ivies," and both have phenomenally loyal alumni, Block says. UCLA just finished a $3 billion campaign, while UVA is in the middle of its own $3 billion fundraising.

Block went into academics for the science. As an undergrad in psychology studying visual perception at Stanford, he was interested in the question of how depth is determined, but he found the research "boring."

He looked around and lit upon biological clocks. "I never deviated from that as a graduate student," he says. "I was fascinated." He's been provost here since 2001, but he still keeps a small lab, and he expects to do so in Los Angeles. 

In 1993, UVA's two provosts came to call. Block was founding director of the National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center in Biological Timing. "My reaction was, there must be some financial irregularities," recalls Block. "I thought I must be in trouble if two provosts were coming to see me."

Instead, he was recruited to be vice provost and on the path to Madison Hall and becoming UVA's top academic officer. Before UCLA beckoned, Block figured he'd finish his term as provost, go back to his lab, teach a little, and enjoy a little less pressure. 

Instead, he's leaving the town he's called home for almost 30 years. Block will give up his Jeffersonian Pavilion on the Lawn for the Italian-Spanish architecture of the chancellor's home at UCLA. Besides the bigger house and bigger school, there's one other perk in Los Angeles: "The weather," he says, "is just about perfect."

Age: 58

Why here?  UVA. In 1977 I was in my last year of an NIH postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford's marine station in Pacific Grove, California. I looked in the back of Science magazine and saw a job for a biologist at the University of Virginia. I barely knew where Charlottesville was, but I applied, was invited to interview, saw how beautiful the countryside was, and immediately accepted. My first application, my first interview, and my first job.

What's worst about living here? Very little to whine about in Charlottesville, perhaps the humidity in mid summer.

Favorite hangout? Kyoto. I've been many times, and there are always more shrines and temples to visit. It's remarkable that there are so many serene places in a busy city.

Most overrated virtue? Thrift. If you can afford it, why not spend and help the economy? Unclear why this is necessarily a virtue. 

People would be surprised to know:  Fairly serious motor-head. Have rebuilt a number of cars– BMWs , Jag, MG, Porsche.

What would you change about yourself? I'd be more athletically talented.

Proudest accomplishment? Achieving a deeply held belief in diversity and tolerance. Learning to not think or act towards people as stereotypes.

People find most annoying about you: My children state the most annoying thing is time-sharing between a conversation and the Blackberry.

Whom do you admire? In Virginia, former Governor Mark Warner. He's smart, has solid values, and has a great sense of humor. I also greatly admire John Warner. Again, principled and patriotic in the most positive sense.

Favorite book? Recently, Wings by Tom Crouch– a very engaging book about the history of human flight. Hard to put down. I was probably most affected by The Diary of Anne Frank as it translates from wholesale to the personal the horrors of the holocaust.

Subject that causes you to rant? Cars running red lights on 29 and running crosswalks on University Avenue

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Automobile navigation systems. This technology is as sophisticated as it gets and helps people like me without map genes.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Cell phones and the lack of etiquette in their use. Does everyone have to scream when using a cell phone? I suspect 80 percent of conversations over cells phones are a waste of electromagnetic energy.

What do you drive? An Acura TL which runs, and an old Porsche 911, that does not.

In your car CD player right now: Empty. Have satellite radio tuned to the L.A. traffic channel to get me ready for entry.

Next journey? This coming month: Nassau, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tucson, and Seattle.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Still can't reveal-– parents are still alive.

Regret: Not having obtained an engineering degree as an undergraduate

Favorite comfort food: Peanut butter

Always in your refrigerator: Cheeses from Whole Foods

Must-see TV: I barely watch TV– sometimes NBC Nightly News.

Favorite cartoon: No preference here

Describe a perfect day. Sitting on a dock on the Oregon Coast at a place call Waldport, on a sunny summer day with a good book and with a crab net in the water, waiting for Dungeness crabs

Walter Mitty fantasy: Driving a red Ferrari at  the Grand Prix in Monaco

Who'd play you in the movie? Richard Gere

Most embarrassing moment? By mistake, arriving two hours late for a seminar I was to give at Stanford University

Best advice you ever got? Don't sweat the stuff that you have no power over changing.

Favorite bumper sticker? "I brake for Leonard Sandridge" 

Gene Block

The original print version of this story contained an error in the first paragraph regarding the type of license. It has been corrected for this online edition.

1 comment

Dr. Block's comment regarding UVA leaning more toward humanities vs. science was very telling. I thank him for his honesty, because quite frankly, research is not encouraged here nor is independent thought so far as I can tell. I've been very disappointed after coming to this realization and am glad he finally gets to work among a more science-oriented crowd.