Tributes flood in following death of Kiwi scientist

By Harry Pearl

Simon Chan, shown in his UC Davis plant biology lab, led the discovery to how breed plants with genes from only one parent. Photo / Supplied
Simon Chan, shown in his UC Davis plant biology lab, led the discovery to how breed plants with genes from only one parent. Photo / Supplied

Tributes for one of New Zealand's top young international scientists have been flooding in following his death last week.

Simon Chan, 38, an associate associate professor of plant biology at the at the University of California, Davis, died on August 22, after a long battle against Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) - a chronic liver disease.

As well as being recognised as a world-leader in the field of plant biology, Mr Chan, was in the original lineup of Supergroove, before they became famous with singer Che Fu.

A former Selwynn College scholar and alumni of Auckland University, Mr Chan's lab work at the UC Davis led to breakthroughs in plant breeding, making it possible to breed with genes from only one parent without complications of inter-generational inbreeding.

His father, Robert Chan, said he, along with his wife Avril and daughter Caron, were "deeply saddened" by Simon's passing.

"He was a talented musician, played the saxophone and was in a band comprised of some of his school friends which later became Supergroove."

An In Memorium from his former department at UC Davis said:

"Simon was also known by his friends and colleagues for his many other interests and activities- he loved music especially jazz, he played a mean saxophone and bass guitar, he was an avid bicyclist."

Mr Chan's pioneering work earned him multiple awards and praise from leaders in the field of biological research.

Professor Bill Lucas, chair of the Department of Plant Biology at UC Davis, said his colleague had been "one of a kind" in an obituary that appeared on the college website last week.

"His enthusiasm for his science was contagious and his passion for teaching and mentoring his students served as a true role model for us all. Words cannot express our deep sorrow at losing such a talented and wonderful human being," Davis said.

Mr Chan was born in Auckland in 1974 and received his bachelor's degree in biochemistry from the University of Auckland (UOA) in 1996. After he graduated from the UOA, he moved to the USA, where he worked alongside Professor Elizabeth Blackburn - the Tasmanian-born winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine - at the University of California, San Francisco.

From there, Mr Chan went on to do his postdoctoral research at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology.

In 2006 he joined the UC Davis faculty as an assistant professor and, six years later was promoted to associate professor.

Most recently, following a grant from from the NSF-BREAD (Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development) program, a joint initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation, Mr Chan had been using his work to help out some of the world's poorest people. He applied his skills to developing innovative new ways to breed staple crops like bananas, plantain and cassava for people in Colombia, Tanzania and Kenya.

- NZ Herald

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