‘Science is a blast’: Meet Gerald Joyce, Salk Institute’s new president

Gerald Joyce has been appointed as the new president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.
Professor and Chief Science Officer Gerald Joyce has been appointed as the new president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

Joyce, currently the institute’s chief science officer, sees his new role as encouraging researchers to explore ‘the next opportunities in science.’


Depending on how you look at it, Gerald Joyce has been connected to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla either for six years or most of his adult life.

Either way, the Rancho Santa Fe resident has just been appointed as Salk’s new president.

After graduating in 1984 with both an M.D. and a Ph.D. from UC San Diego (which runs affiliate programs with Salk), Joyce completed his postgraduate medical training at Mercy Hospital in San Diego and postdoctoral research training at the Salk Institute before launching his independent research program in 1989. In that time, he married his wife, psychiatrist Nancy McTigue, in the Salk courtyard.

“I learned to be a scientist at Salk,” he said. “There is a sense of adventure and scientific rigor, where people are willing to have thoughtful conversations and meet important challenges.”

Joyce returned to Salk in 2017, where he has maintained a lab since. He soon became the institute’s senior vice president and chief science officer and was recently named president following an extensive six-month search. In April, Joyce will succeed Rusty Gage, who is returning to his lab full time.

“As we consider the legacy of Rusty’s presidency, perhaps the most indelible mark will be his remarkable success in fostering a much more unified, collaborative and inclusive community within our campus, having established Salk’s first Office of Equity and Inclusion, facilitated greater partnership and trust between faculty and administration and, of course, helped to deftly steer the institute through the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Marna Whittington, chair of Salk’s board of trustees. “Salk is now exceptionally well-positioned to engage in a seamless leadership transition and advance its life-changing mission at a time when the need for the breakthrough discoveries for which the institute is internationally renowned is as urgent as ever.”

Joyce said he hopes to guide the institute to pursue basic science research in ways it hasn’t before.

“I want to work with faculty, advisers, non-resident fellows to determine what we need to look at next, where we need to go next,” he said.

The courtyard of La Jolla's Salk Institute for Biological Studies
The courtyard of La Jolla’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where Gerald Joyce — now appointed as the institute’s new president — got married decades ago.
(Salk Institute)

Joyce said the Salk team recently indicated themes it plans to explore in the immediate and long-term future, including cancer, healthy aging, immunology, plant science and neuroscience. But the core of the work will be looking at new ways to view the issues and possible solutions.

For example, Joyce said, Salk has a history of studying cancer, but the methods have evolved over the decades and will continue to do so.

“Back during the ‘war on cancer’ era [of the 1970s] and for decades thereafter, the thinking was that cancer cells are bad and we need to kill them or cut them out,” Joyce said. “There was the monolithic view of search and destroy. In the last decade, there has been a revolution of the discovery that cancer cells are our cells that went rogue. Because they divide faster than normal cells, they take over. Cancer being cancer, it mutates and keeps the immune system from taking it out. So in the last decade, immune science has looked at the balance of defense by the immune system and offense by cancer.”

“Cancer used to be a death sentence,” he added, but integration of immunotherapy options has improved so people can live longer and even into old age after a cancer diagnosis.

“Immunotherapy rebalances the war between the immune system and cancer,” Joyce said. “Salk has a superb group of cancer biologists, but we also have a strong group of immune biologists that understand that fight. The next piece is looking at why immunotherapy hasn’t won the war.”

Part of that research involves looking at the “battlefield” of the body. “We simulate the battlefield and mock it up,” Joyce said. “That’s where we think new discoveries can be made … and pointed to therapies.”

That is just one example of what Joyce calls “the next opportunities in science.” He said he sees the president’s role as encouraging researchers to explore the areas “that aren’t in our comfort zone, but play to our strengths.”

“I learned to be a scientist at Salk. There is a sense of adventure and scientific rigor, where people are willing to have thoughtful conversations and meet important challenges.”

— Gerald Joyce

Salk is seeking to raise $750 million in a campaign ending in 2028. About $250 million of that is to be used to build and operate a major science and technology center on North Torrey Pines Road. Some of the remainder will be used for things such as increasing the size of the faculty by about 10 to reach 60.

The undertaking is expected to help in the development of new drugs and therapeutics.

Oct. 30, 2021

The ‘science gene’

Joyce was born in Kansas’ “Tornado Alley” and grew up outside Chicago.

“As a kid I was always kind of science-y,” he said. “My mother was a grade-school teacher and my father was a business exec type. But my mother’s father was an immigrant from Italy and the first person in our family to get a Ph.D. in engineering. I might have gotten the science gene from him.

“I kind of have an engineering brain in that I like to build things out of molecules. In high school, I thought I would be an ichthyologist [who studies fish] until I started doing the research and found it wasn’t for me. I pivoted to molecular genetics and molecular biology.”

During his career, Joyce has served as the dean of faculty at Scripps Research and director of the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, both in La Jolla. He also is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, U.S. National Academy of Medicine, American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Joyce said his work doesn’t afford him a lot of free time, but he doesn’t mind. “I work a lot,” he said, “but I think science is a blast.”

— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Gary Robbins contributed to this report.