Influential scientist David Burns dies in car accident

By Asuka Eguchi and John Ramunas

Dr. David Michael Burns, whose scientific contributions spanned the control of mRNA translation, the regulation of pluripotency, and epigenetic landscape of muscle stem cells, died on October 9th in a car accident. He worked in the laboratory of Professor Helen Blau. He was 48.

Dr. Burns grew up in Santa Cruz County, CA. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Biology from UC Santa Cruz and doctorate degree in Molecular Medicine from the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School in Worcester, MA. His Ph.D. advisor was Professor Joel D. Richter. In 2011, he came to Stanford University to study reprogramming of differentiated cells to stem cells in the Blau lab.

He was an adventurer at heart who enjoyed climbing, golfing, jazz, backcountry skiing, and boating. He often talked about how incredibly gifted his children were and the activities he had planned for the family during the weekends. He regularly shared stories about playing with his kids, building projects, raising chickens, wildfires, and internet outages at his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. David was also a gifted musician and was a California All Star for 3 years in high school.  He played in the Monterey Jazz Festival and was privileged to perform with Dizzy Gillespie.

“David was a fun colleague, a dedicated scientist, and a proud dad. He loved science, would voraciously read the scientific literature, and greatly enjoyed discussing science in lab meetings, as well as over lunch or coffee. You would often find him at the whiteboard sharing his scientific vision with a student or a colleague. He was very generous and always willing to help out,” said Professor Ermelinda Porpiglia, a long-time friend and colleague.

Sriram Bhimaraju, a high school student who spent a summer in the lab, said about Dr. Burns, “He always found the best ways to make everybody in the lab feel included.”

Dr. Gaspard Pardon, who shared a lab bench next to Dr. Burns’, appreciated his refreshing frankness and passion for science. “He supported and challenged me. Regularly, we had lunch together, and he taught me how to respect everyone’s work and undertaking.”

Professor Alex Chang described Dr. Burns as “the dependable ‘third reviewer’ you could always consult to see what holes you still have in your study.”

Dr. Matt Blake, who worked closely with Dr. Burns, said, “David's honesty, humor and brilliance are one of the most important influences on my life and have helped me become the scientist I am today. I think about the things he taught me often, if not daily. David loved simple sayings that conveyed immense meaning, next to his desk he had a quote on a piece of paper that read, ‘Better is the enemy of good enough.’”

His warm personality and thoughtfulness made him a friend to all in the lab. Conversation with him quickly revealed his strong love for his family, scientific exploration, and being active in nature. These traits made him a highly positive and influential force that improved the lives of many.

Dr. Burns is survived by his wife, Chrissy Dahl, three boys: John (13), Joe (9) and Ben (4), brother Bob, sister Elle and his mother Pat Gardner.
Donations can be made to his GoFundMe memorial.