Neuroscientist Philip S. Ulinski, PhD, 1943 - 2010

Neuroscientist Philip S. Ulinski, PhD, 1943 – 2010

June 3, 2010

An expert in the field of neuroanatomy and the architect of one of the country's first graduate training programs in computational neuroscience, Philip S. Ulinski, PhD, Professor Emeritus and former chair of the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, and the Committee on Computational Neuroscience, died May 25, 2010 at the age of 67. The cause of death was heart disease.

For 35 years, Ulinski studied the organization of brain structures in turtles, snakes and other animals, focusing primarily on the circuitry of the visual system. His research articles and textbooks were critical to the field's understanding of how evolution has shaped the brain's ability to sense the world around an organism, from the simple visual system of reptiles to the more elaborate brains of humans and other mammals.

"Phil was part of a small and intensely creative and insightful group of comparative neurobiologists," said Daniel Margoliash, professor in the Departments of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and Psychology. "His work in reptilian systems was very important in helping formulate and advance this new set of ideas on the importance of the mammalian neocortex in controlling cognitive behavior."

Ulinski's research interests eventually led him to a rising new field in neurobiology that incorporated computational methods to analyze the complex dynamics of brain activity. Beyond adapting his own laboratory's techniques to assimilate these new tools, Ulinski sought to create new educational programs for undergraduate and graduate students interested in the young research field.

His efforts led to the formation of the Center for Integrative Neuroscience and Neuroengineering Research, a partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the Committee on Computational Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. This PhD-granting program was among the first such curriculums in the United States.

"Phil was a singular force in pushing forward the computational neuroscience programs here at the University of Chicago. He was very forward-thinking about it." Margoliash said. "There were few people who envisioned this field as a natural opportunity for training as well as research, and he saw it and he built a program around it."

"He pretty much started it, he was the one," said Nicholas Hatsopoulos, current chair of the Committee on Computational Neuroscience and a professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy. "He was involved not just in getting a degree program set up but also in creating a whole set of courses specialized in this field, and finding faculty to teach these courses."

Born in Detroit, and raised in Hamtramck and Warren, Michigan, Ulinski showed an interest in science from an early age. In elementary school, he asked his parents for a copy of Grey's Anatomy and established a laboratory in the family's basement, said his sister, Linda Stowers.

"Often, the mailman would bring deliveries for Phil that were supplies for his laboratory," his wife, Mary Ulinski, said. "One day, his mother said the delivery box was croaking; it was frogs!"

Hired to the Department of Anatomy by anthropologist Ronald Singer in 1975, Ulinski was a new kind of scientist for the department: a neurobiologist concerned with the function, not just the structure, of the brain. From 1982 to 1994, as chairman of what became the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, he oversaw a further broadening of the department's mission, incorporating cell biology, genetics, paleontology and neuroscience into an integrative view of biology.

"Anatomy had been for a long time, 'let's memorize all the bones'," Ulinski told the Chicago Tribune in 2006. "Not much emphasis had been put on why the bones are this way, what they are doing for the human body or animals."

"He was a great source of inspiration and mentorship to everyone in the department," said Robert Ho, current chair of the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy. "He was a source of history and wisdom and everyone really knew that. We all very much relied on his good sense, and his advice for every aspect of being a faculty member, being a student, and being a part of the department."

Throughout his career, and even after assuming emeritus status, Ulinski emphasized both graduate and undergraduate education. In 1997, he received the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching for his work in an introductory biology course series for first-year students that he helped design. After the launch of the Committee on Computational Neuroscience -- which required creating a new curriculum from scratch -- he taught two courses himself, and created a summer undergraduate program that drew students from around the country.

"He'd see problems and he'd step in himself and try to do something about them," said James Hopson, Professor Emeritus of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and a colleague and friend of Ulinski since the mid-1970s. "That's one of the things that really was admirable about Phil: He didn't just talk, he was willing to do what was necessary to achieve a goal, and he was very broad in what his goals were. He leaves behind a strong legacy of our department and a lot of students that he's trained."

Ulinski received his undergraduate and PhD education at Michigan State University, majoring in biochemistry before completing graduate degrees in biophysics and zoology in 1969. After stints in the Department of Biology at Oberlin College and the Department of Anatomy at Loyola University, Ulinski came to the University of Chicago in 1975.

In 1979, Ulinski was elevated to Associate Professor and joined the Committee on Neurobiology. From 1982 to 1994, he served as Chairman of what became known as the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, and was named a Professor in 1986. From 2001 until becoming a Professor Emeritus in 2008, Ulinski served as Chairman and Professor of the Committee on Computational Neuroscience.

As emeritus faculty, Ulinski concentrated on completing a textbook of computational neuroscience he started in the mid-1990s, while continuing to travel with his wife to scientific conferences. In his spare time, he also enjoyed reading, cooking, hosting dinner parties for family and friends, and participated in a lecture series at the Lutheran School of Theology in Hyde Park. Even in retirement, Ulinski remained passionate about teaching and mentoring the next generation of scientists, his wife said.

In a final act appropriate to someone who spent his career studying the visual system of the brain, Ulinski donated his eyes to the Illinois Eye Bank.

"Phil had a vision of where he wanted the scientific community to go, and he spent his life creating it," Mary Ulinski said.

Ulinski is survived by his wife, Mary, nee Kalinowski; son, Steve, from a previous marriage; daughter-in-law, Laura; granddaughters, Maggie and Katie. He is also survived by two sisters, Sunnie Skillman and Linda Stowers. Phil was son to the late Steve and Helen Ulinski, a brother-in-law to Bob Stowers, Tom (Noel) Kalinowski and Barbara Madsen. Phil was a nephew and godson to Rita Dyszer; and an uncle to many nieces and nephews.

A visitation service was held at Bond Chapel last week, followed by a funeral service at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. A memorial service to celebrate Phil's life will be held this summer at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Chicago. Contact Mary Ulinski at for details. A tribute will also take place at the Organization for Computational Neurosciences Annual Meeting in San Antonio in late July.