Categories:  Faculty

Deaths: David Featherstone

David Featherstone

David Featherstone, professor and former director of undergraduate studies in biological sciences, died Jan. 28. He was 50.

Featherstone, a leading educator and researcher, was a neurobiologist interested in gene function. He focused on brain genes, specifically synapses — information-transferring and processing points that brain cells use to communicate with each other — and glutamate receptors, which receive messages from other cells. Research has shown that glutamatergic synapse strength is determined by the number of postsynaptic glutamate receptors — the more glutamate receptors, the stronger the synapse — and Featherstone’s labs studied genes and molecular mechanisms that control glutamate receptor abundance.

“He was a very creative fellow and very successful,” said John Leonard, professor of biological sciences. “He was quite a guy.”

Featherstone began his undergraduate studies as an art and English major at Beloit College in 1984 before transferring to Iowa State University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in zoology, and a master’s in toxicology. He received a doctorate from Utah State University and completed his postdoctoral work there before joining UIC in 2002 to lead groundbreaking research.

Among his most notable discoveries was a gene mutation in fruit flies that allowed Featherstone and his team to learn how they could use genetic manipulation or drugs to turn homosexual behavior in flies on and off within hours. His labs also worked to confirm findings in mice.

Over the span of his career, he wrote more than 50 highly cited publications and was a reviewer for dozens of high-impact scientific journals, funding agencies in different parts of the world, and several textbook publishers. His research has also earned widespread attention and worldwide media coverage.

During his 15 years at UIC, Featherstone received more than $2 million in grants and research awards — from places like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Brain and the Behavior Research Foundation, formerly the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.

But his success in advancing knowledge in science went much further than research grants and publications alone. He did his best to impact students, too.

“Dave was a faculty colleague who was tremendously accomplished in terms of scientific research, but that never deterred his dedication to the quality of education for students,” said Hormoz BassiriRad, professor of biological sciences.

Realizing that lectures weren’t always an effective way of teaching, Featherstone engaged students by letting them ask him questions instead. He was known on campus for his open-door policy, too, where students could, at any time, walk into his office and ask questions. He was applauded for his outstanding contributions to education and mentorship with a Silver Circle in 2008, a Humboldt Research Award in 2009, and a Teaching Recognition Program Award, given by the Council for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, in 2011.

More recently, he spearheaded an effort to improve the biological sciences curriculum at UIC, changes that he hoped would better prepare students for life after graduation.

“He’ll leave an enormous hole in the department,” Leonard said.

Featherstone is survived by his wife, Janet Richmond, professor and head of biological sciences; his son, Samuel; parents Bruce and Judy Featherstone; and brothers Eric and Jeff.

Services have been held.

Donations in David Featherstone’s memory can be made to the David E. Featherstone Memorial Scholarship Fund. Checks should be made payable to the University of Illinois at Chicago with DEF Scholarship Gift written in the notes section. Mail or deliver checks to Thomas Lagen, director of finance, UIC Department of Biological Sciences (MC 066), 845 West Taylor Street (room 3370 SES), Chicago, IL 60607. Email Thomas Lagen with questions at thomlage@uic.edu