Photographer sees life at a unique level


Thomas Deerinck was born and raised in Stockton and joined the Department of Neurosciences at UCSD in 1978. He works at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at UCSD with teams headed by Director Mark Ellisman and Roger Tsien, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry, in developing cutting-edge methods for microscopic imaging of cells and tissues, ultimately trying to understand the molecular basis of a host of pathologies including cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

As a byproduct of the research conducted at UCSD, Deerinck creates stunning microscopic images of biological specimens that have been featured in such periodicals as National Geographic, Scientific American, Discover and Time magazine.

He has the distinction of being the only person to have won both the prestigious Nikon Small World Microphotography Competition and the Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition. In 2008, he was named “Science Photographer of the Year” at the World Photography Awards in Cannes, France. He was recently named as an honorary judge for the 2009 Olympus BioScapes Competition, one of the world’s leading international life science light microscopy photo competitions. Results of the judging will be announced in December at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Diego. The top 10 images will appear in the December issue of Scientific American.

What brought you to Del Mar?

I moved here in the late ‘70s and not only fell in love with the sheer beauty of the area, but also the small-town feel of Del Mar. I’m so glad that both those qualities have been preserved for the most part.

What makes this area special to you?

It’s the people. You walk down the street and it seems everyone has a smile on his or her face. They know how fortunate they are to live here. Del Mar is home to a lot of very diverse and interesting people, if not by ethnicity, at least by their life experiences.

If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in the area?

Less graffiti, more flowers. Also, maybe a little shade down at the tot lot at Powerhouse Park.

Who or what inspires you?

First and foremost my parents. They did an amazing job of raising 10 children. I have no idea how they pulled it off. Also, when I was young, I remember being awed by the work of the renowned medical photographer Lennart Nilsson. His landmark imagery on human life before birth published in Life magazine was truly amazing. He was able to show us what had never been seen before. And of course my wife, Karla, who was an art major at UCLA when I met her and who taught me everything I know about art.

If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, Dennis Hopper, Van Cliburn. Wait, we can’t have all Republicans. How about adding Robin Williams to keep them all laughing and Al Franken to do the dishes afterward (just kidding). I was going to add President Obama, but it seems like he’s in my living room every night anyway.

Tell us about what you are currently reading.

“The Language of God” by the geneticist Frances Collins. It’s a fascinating account of his personal journey as a scientist and physician from agnosticism to devoted Catholic. Many people think science and religion are diametrically opposed, but not so.

What is your most-prized possession?

Whatever quality it was that made my wife fall in love with me all those years ago. I wish the heck I knew what it was, but she’s not saying.

What do you do for fun?

Taking my 5-year-old daughter, Lauren, to Powerhouse Park and to the beach. She’s well known for having petted every single dog in Del Mar at least once. Also, together with our neighbors, we combined our backyards into one huge grassy area, creating one of the few private football fields in Del Mar. The neighborhood kids love to get together on the weekends to play. The downside is that I get to mow it every Saturday.

Please describe your greatest accomplishment.

Being a good husband and father, or at least trying my best.

What is your motto or philosophy of life?

Life is a fragile and precious gift that shouldn’t be wasted. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for us to realize this.