Colleagues Mourn Death of Biologist Grant Balkema
By Mark Sullivan
A memorial service was held Tuesday in St. Ignatius Church for Assoc. Prof. Grant W. Balkema (Biology), who died at his Higgins Hall office the night before Thanksgiving. Prof. Balkema, who had a history of respiratory ailments, was 53, and leaves a wife and three children.
A Newton resident whose research centered on the neurobiology of vision, Prof. Balkema had taught for 17 years at Boston College and was graduate program director in Biology.
He was recalled by his department chairman as "dedicated to his science and to his students.
"Grant brought intensity to all of his endeavors, and found a deep joy in working in the lab with his students," said DeLuca Professor of Biology Marc Muskavitch. "He was a dedicated teacher in the classroom, evolving his course, year by year, to share with students his fascination with the many facets of physiology.
"He was an aggressive advocate for his students, for his department, and for his research. And he was a committed citizen of the University, serving BC in a number of capacities over the years."
In the lab, Prof. Balkema focused his research on the synaptic organization of the retina of the eye.
"Grant recently obtained evidence suggesting photoreceptor cells may be renewed in the adult retina, in certain situations, a finding that could have real significance for ameliorating retinal degeneration syndromes that can lead to blindness," said Muskavitch.
"Grant reveled in blending research and learning in his laboratory, and in the classroom. He treated the many undergraduate members of his research group as full partners in his research program, while training graduate students as well."
Prof. Balkema's gift for mentoring was remembered by graduate assistant Jason Chalifoux '04, GSA&S '09, who began in Prof. Balkema's lab as an undergraduate Beckman Scholar doing research on the molecular biology of the eye.
"When I remember Dr. Balkema, I will remember him for his acute observations, his exceptional scientific questioning, and his altruistic care for students," said Chalifoux.
"Whether it was in the lab or in the classroom, Dr. Balkema was always willing to make the time to meet with students to discuss material or to talk about other life-related issues. I spent half of my time talking to him about politics and sports, with a larger emphasis on the latter. He loved soccer as much as I do and we couldn't help but exchange stories from games he coached or games I watched. He knew how to have a good time but still get work done. He was a good example of how to lead a well-rounded life."
Outside the lab, Prof. Balkema was a devoted soccer parent, acting as a referee for Newton Girls Soccer, which is establishing a memorial scholarship in his name. His daughter, Natalie, who played at Newton South High School, is a midfielder on the women's soccer team at Emory University, where she is majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology.
The first Grant Balkema Memorial Award, to be given to a youth referee who "exemplifies the personal qualities and professional standards that guided Grant Balkema as an accomplished referee," is expected to be presented at the annual dinner of the Newton Girls Soccer Board of Directors this Sunday.
Prof. Balkema earned his bachelor's degree and doctorate in biology at Purdue University. He held a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Washington, and was a Senior Fellow and lecturer in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.
The author of numerous articles on the neurobiology of the retina of the eye, Prof. Balkema was awarded grants from the National Science Foundation, the Davis Foundation, and other sources. He also served as a peer reviewer for journals such as Visual Neuroscience, The Journal of Comparative Neurology, and Neurochemistry.
Prof. Balkema leaves his wife, Marilee P. Ogren-Balkema, and three children, Natalie R., Julia L. and Tucker Balkema, all of Waban. Burial will be private.
Donations in Prof. Balkema's memory may be made to the Massachusetts Chapter of the ALS Association, 75 McNeil Way, 201, Dedham, Mass., 02026.
Newton Girls Soccer is creating an annual award to be presented every
December to recognize a youth referee who exemplifies the personal
qualities and professional standards that guided Grant Balkema as an
accomplished referee. The award, to be known as The Grant Balkema
Memorial Award, will be made to a high school youth referee and will
carry with it a college scholarship in an amount to be determined
annually by the Award committee.
The winner of the Balkema Award will be a high school youth referee who
has been active with Newton Girls Soccer games and who has achieved high
standards of maturity, sensitivity, good humor, and sound judgment in
managing play to promote the great game of soccer. The recipient will
also have demonstrated keen knowledge of the Laws of the Game and
highest respect for the traditions of the game that have so enhanced the
lives of many young people in Newton.
We hope that many Newton families will join in making tax-deductible
contributions to the Balkema Award fund to help NGS launch this annual
memorial to Grant. Checks should be made to "NGS -- The Balkema Award"
and sent to:
Newton Girls Soccer, PO Box 620275, Newton, MA 02462-0275.
-Senior Scientist John Roche (Biology) contributed to this story.