The Department Mourns the Loss Our Former Colleague, Chair, and Friend Eduardo Macagno

October 11, 2023

We are very saddened by the sudden passing of our long-time colleague and former chair, Eduardo Macagno, who died on September 25.  Eduardo was born in 1943 in Argentina and moved with his parents and sister Laura to the University of Iowa in Iowa City in 1956, where his father, Enzo, was a professor of fluid mechanics and his mother, Matilde, was a professor of mathematics.  It was here that Eduardo began his love of classical music and learned to play the bass and cello.  After receiving his Ph.D. in physics, working with the renowned physicist Madam Chien-Shiung Wu at Columbia University in 1968, he changed fields and began working in neurobiology as a postdoctoral researcher with Cyrus Levinthal in the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia. He established his own laboratory there in 1973 and rose through the ranks to become a full professor in 1985 and Columbia’s departmental chair from 1991 to 1993. From 1993 to 2000 he served as Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia. In 2001 he moved to the University of California at San Diego to become the Founding Dean of the School of Biological Sciences.

Eduardo’s research centered on the development of the nervous system and the intricate interplay of the neurons that form it, first using the water flea Daphnia magna and then the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis.  He was one of the first people to use serial-section electron microscopy to analyze nervous system development and circuitry, what is now referred to as connectomics. In these studies, he discovered "pioneer fibers" which, in Daphnia, were the first cells to form the optic nerve, enabling other cells to follow; when he ablated the pioneer early in development, he found that another axon could take over its role.  He then studied the mechanisms underlying neuronal growth, concentrating on the function of receptor phosphatases in growth-cone navigation and target selection and on neuronal self-recognition. His discoveries using the leech include that neurogenesis (as opposed to just neuron death) is controlled by peripheral targets, successfully regenerating sensory fibers that use glycoproteins to find the pathways to their targets in the central nervous system. In addition, he found that the specificity of electrical synapses is controlled in part by the selective expression of particular gap-junctional proteins. This research on the neural development of simple systems was recognized with one of the first Jacob Javits Neuroscience Investigator Awards from the National Institutes of Health, and by Eduardo’s election in 1992 as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Steven Siegelbaum, the current chair of the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia, has said about Eduardo, “He was a true pioneer of developmental neuroscience at Columbia.”

Eduardo was a major contributor to the field of neurodevelopment not only through his own research, but also, until 2020, as the Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Developmental Neurobiology. In addition, he mentored over 40 graduate students and postdocs and numerous undergraduates, and taught Columbia’s undergraduate course in physiology. From 1980 to 1994, he was an instructor in the Neural Systems and Behavior course at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, which he co-directed with Ron Hoy (Cornell) in 1983 and 1984.  He also taught in MBL’s leech course, Neurobiology of the Leech, which was also the very first course Eduardo took after switching from physics to biology.

During his time at UCSD, he continued to study the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neuronal identity, the generation of neuronal arbors, synaptic target selection, and formation of neuronal circuits. In addition, he and his collaborators characterized the H. medicinalis genome and transcriptome, which was put in the public domain. In the last several years, he embarked on a new path, and pioneered the creation of a new interdisciplinary field at the nexus of Architecture and Neuroscience; in 2003, he co-founded the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, dedicated to improving human-centered architectural design by furthering the understanding of how the human brain processes information as it experiences the built environment. He was ANFA’s President from 2009-2011 and, in recent years, he and his international collaborators used detailed behavioral analyses, 3D-immersive virtual reality, and wearable sensors to assay human responses while navigating the built environment, focusing on people experiencing visual and/or cognitive impairment. 

Eduardo is survived by his loving family: his wife and colleague, Laura Wolszon; their adult children, Francesco and Lucia Macagno; his sister, Laura Macagno-Shang; his nieces, Camille and Natalie Montilino and Jamie Wolszon; and his nephews, Sidney Payne and Joshua Wolszon.