Professor Tom Duke

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It is with deep regret that the LCN announces the death of Professor Tom Duke on Monday 25 June, at the age of 48.  He had been the Deputy Director for Biomedicine in the LCN since October 2007.  


Tom Duke was one of the outstanding biological physicists of his generation.  He read Natural Sciences at Emmanuel College Cambridge and went on to do a PhD in polymer physics with Sam Edwards in the Cavendish Laboratory.  His interests started to shift decisively towards biology during a postdoctoral stay in Paris and a spell at Princeton, where he and Robert Austin invented an extremely ingenious way of sorting biological molecules according to their size, using an array of tiny pillars.  He returned to Cambridge in 1995 as a Royal Society University Research Fellow, becoming successively a Lecturer and a Reader in the Cavendish Laboratory.  An especially important contribution from this period was his model of hair cells in the inner ear, which detect the motions that ultimately enable animals to hear; Tom, with colleagues from Paris and Denmark, showed how the cells’ sensitivity could be enhanced through hovering on the edge of a dynamical instability.  The model has been strikingly confirmed in lower vertebrates and may also apply to mammals.

Tom moved to UCL as a Professor in 2007, quickly becoming Deputy Director for Life Sciences in the (then newly established) London Centre for Nanotechnology.  He provided distinguished leadership to its research in biomedicine and continued his own research at a high level, winning the Franklin Medal and Prize of the Institute of Physics in 2010, as well as being a successful and popular teacher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.  As recently as April this year he and his UCL colleagues published an important breakthrough in Nature modelling the competition between different processes in the formation of stable cell layers (epithelia).  He was universally admired for his penetrating and creative intellect coupled with a deep knowledge of physics and mathematics, for his ability to get to the heart of the complex physics underlying a biological process and solve a simple model to explain it, and for his generous and selfless devotion to his junior colleagues.  He will be very deeply missed.

See here for a tribute to Tom in the Guardian.