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at Caltech

1951 - 2012

From Prof. Doug Rees
On Friday, January 27, 2012, after a short battle with illness, we lost a friend and colleague, Dr. Michael W. Day. Mike was Director of the Beckman Institute X-ray Crystallography Facility and of the Molecular Observatory.

As a Masters student at Cal State Northridge, Mike worked for Ken Hardcastle and Ed Rosenberg. There he solved a series of small molecule structures and "caught the bug" for X-ray crystallography in a major way. He came to Caltech as a graduate student in Chemistry in 1990. By the time he had completed his PhD with Doug Rees in 1995, he had solved the first structure of a protein isolated from a hyperthermophilic organism (the P. furiosus rubredoxin) and was also deeply involved in refining the structure of the A. vinelandii nitrogenase MoFe-protein responsible for biological nitrogen fixation. After graduation, Mike joined the Beckman Institute X-ray Crystallography Facility, becoming Director in 1997. Since that time, Mike and Staff Crystallographer Larry Henling provided numerous graduate students and postdocs with individualized attention and advice about their crystallographic problems, a tradition dating back to Noyes and Pauling, continuing with Dick Marsh through to the present. In recognition of this work, Mike received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Cal State Northridge in 2000. As the instructor in Ch 122 "Structure Determination by X-ray Crystallography", Mike provided a more formal development of crystallography that was greatly appreciated by students, many of whom went in thinking that diffraction could not possibly be covered in a way that would be comprehensible, much less enjoyable. One undergraduate wrote (unsolicited) after this past Fall term "I can't think of many classes I've enjoyed here as much as Professor Day's Ch 122."

From his arrival at Caltech, Mike understood that the future of crystallography involved the integration of small molecule and macromolecular crystallography. He was a major force behind the establishment of the Molecular Observatory that was the realization of his dream.

These would have been significant enough accomplishments, but they were the more extraordinary given the extent of Mike's paralysis that restricted him to a wheel chair with only limited movement of his arms. As the license plate frame on a previous van stated, however, "Disabled Does Not Mean Unable." He was tenacious and persistent, yet patient, and had an unwavering dedication to crystallography. Mike succeeded in living life on his own terms, which was an inspiration to many of us.