Hiking events

Beloved UC Berkeley professor dies at 48 while hiking in Utah

Chem 1A is UC Berkeley’s introductory chemistry course designed to identify freshmen who have the talent to continue on a pre-medical path in a one-semester pressure cooker. But whenever Professor Phillip Geissler taught it, students could have at least a moment of relief when he brought his guitar.

Standing in front of 500 students as if the Pimentel Auditorium were a concert hall, he sang catchy chimerical tunes, with titles like “The Mole Song” and “Acids and Bases”. He would even bring in a professional singer as a guest performer. It’s the kind of extra effort that has earned Geissler top campus teaching awards.

“Students often said he was the nicest teacher they had ever met at Cal,” said Lucie Liu, a former chemistry graduate student who was selected for the statistical mechanics dream team known as the Geissler Group name.

In mid-July, he detoured to Moab, Utah for a day or two of hiking on his way back from Colorado, where he lectured at the Telluride Research Center. Geissler was aware of the danger of the heat and very cautious, his partner Lauren Nakashima said, so he settled in early in the morning of July 17. At 8 a.m. when he was at the visitor center, it was already 80 degrees, heading into triple digits. .

When he failed to register in Nakashima at his home in Oakland, a search was organized. His body was found near a trailhead two days later. The cause of death is pending an autopsy, but it was suspected to be a heart attack or other sudden medical event, Nakashima said. He was 48 years old.

“He was late for a big American road trip in the big landscapes to see that geological splendor of the southwest that he loved,” said Rebecca Overacre, who described herself as Geissler’s life partner, although he lives with Nakashima. It works for them.

“All three of us believe in the infinite capacity of the human heart, Overacre said on a joint call with Nakashima. “Phill was good at meeting challenges, scientifically and otherwise.”

Geissler was a science prodigy who earned his doctorate. in chemistry from UC Berkeley in just four years, when it normally takes five. UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry is consistently ranked in the top three nationally and is among the best in the world. There is international competition for every tenure-track position and Geissler was the kind of talent that sparked a bidding war. Three years after leaving Berkeley to do post-doctoral work at Harvard and MIT, he was back for good and on his way to a prestigious endowed chair as Aldo De Benedictis Professor Emeritus of Chemistry.

Chemistry professor Phillip Geissler on the UC Berkeley campus in April 2022.

Provided by Annie Lin

Beginning in 2003, he rose rapidly through the ranks from assistant professor to associate professor. While still in his 30s, he won the Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award in 2011. A year later, he was promoted to full professor. He became an internationally recognized expert in the field of statistical mechanics, which uses calculations to study chemical systems.

“Phill was a truly remarkable person — a brilliant researcher and scholar, a phenomenal teacher and mentor, and a dear friend to so many,” said Douglas S. Clark, dean of UC Berkeley College of Chemistry, in a statement announcing Geissler’s death. . “His students found him both approachable and caring.”

Phillip Lewis Geissler was born on March 27, 1974 in Ithaca, NY, where his father, Fredrick Dietzmann Geissler, was earning a doctorate. in music from Cornell University. The family moved on, following teaching opportunities before settling in Richmond, Virginia, where Geissler switched to computing.

According to his older brother, Fritz Geissler, Phill excelled from his earliest school years in mathematics and humor. He learned the guitar in college at the same time as his brother, who is four years older.

“Phill learned the basic chords and once he had them he could listen to a song and be able to play it along, by ear,” said Fritz, a primary school principal in Chesterfield. , Virginia.

At Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Geissler played center back for the football team, but quit in order to focus on his lead guitar job in a rock band named Solomon’s Marbles after an instrumental jamming from Grateful. Dead. He grew his hair to shoulder length, wore a tie dye and hit any Dead or Phish show within a six hour drive.

He also developed an interest in hiking and backpacking. One summer when he was in high school, he and his father flew to Utah to explore the high desert canyons, which he would return to until the day he died.

“He loved the colors and the sandstone formations,” his brother said.

As a high school student, he earned a full scholarship from the Ethyl Corporation in Richmond. He chose Cornell for its top-notch chemistry department and for its location in the Gorge region of upstate New York. He was also aware that a Grateful Dead show in the campus gymnasium on May 8, 1977 is generally considered one of the band’s best gigs of all time.

After graduating Summa Cum Laude from Cornell in 1996, he came to Berkeley. While in college, he got a call from Overacre, an old friend from Richmond who graduated from Virginia Tech and was also considering moving to Berkeley. She did, and they were later married in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

They bought a house in Rockridge in 2004. That same year, Overacre struck up a relationship with Alison McLennan, a furniture maker from Oakland, and she eventually moved in. Geissler later struck up a relationship with Nakashima and moved on, but didn’t. “We’ve grown into two happy homes,” is how Overacre described the relationship with Nakashima, who is the academic staff analyst in the dean’s office at the College of Chemistry.

Geissler’s reputation has drawn talent from around the world to the UC Berkeley program. Lucie Liu came from the University of Cambridge in England.

“I wanted to study with the best professor in statistical mechanics,” she said, “and Phill Geissler’s group was my first choice,” she said.

The Geissler group is a mix of a dozen PhDs. candidates, post-docs and even a student or two working on projects together.

“We are not party animals. We’re all nerds,” said Nathan Odendahl, who met and married Liu while in the Geissler band.

“There’s a legacy of people Phill taught who are now full professors with their own lab groups,” Odendahl said. “He was an extremely patient teacher and would explain a difficult concept in a way that made sure the student fully understood it, and not all teachers are like that. Most are not.

Most are also not the type to provide musical accompaniment in class. During Big Game week, when UC Berkeley’s rivalry with Stanford is usually at its peak, he would have liquid in a beaker that would turn from red to blue and gold.

At the penultimate moment, the doors of Pimentel Hall would fly open and enter the California Straw Hat Band. It’s a Chem 1A tradition that dates back 50 years, but no other teacher would pick up the guitar and play with the band like Geissler would.

Geissler was serious about the instrument. He studied classical and Spanish guitar and he was good enough to accompany Austrian singer-songwriter Clara Blume on a Bay Area tour in 2018 and 2019.

The tour ended on the UC Berkeley campus, in Chem 1A, a surprise performance.

“The students were absolutely baffled and overwhelmed by how caring Phill was as a teacher,” said Blume, who has a day job as Austria’s vice consul.

“Here is a guy who is universally recognized as a generational mind in his field and he delivers complex content in the most accessible and entertaining way.”

Everyone can experience it at 10 o’clock. Friday, July 29 at a public memorial at the foot of the Sather Tower (the Campanile). Blume will perform one of his own compositions “Lloro Sangre” (I Cry Blood) followed by “Brokedown Palace”, by the Dead.

Survivors include Geissler’s partner, Nakashima, and life partner, Overacre, both from Oakland; mother Beverly Geissler of Richmond; brother Fritz Geissler also of Richmond; and three nephews.

Donations in his name may be made to the First Nations Development Institute, 2432 Main Street, 2nd Floor, Longmont, CO 80501, or the National Parks Foundations, 1500 K Street NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005.

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]