by Buck Institute

Paying tribute to Buck professor Judith Campisi

As soon as word of Judy Campisi’s death on January 19th hit social media the tributes started rolling in.  “Devastating news. Judy was a scientific giant and a warm wonderful colleague and friend.” “A superb mentor and a second mother. A big loss, personally and professionally”. “The world will be a worse place without her in it.”

Campisi, internationally recognized as a pioneer in the field of cellular senescence, was a stellar scientist and scholar as well as an invaluable mentor, collaborator, teacher and friend.  This profile, done after she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, recounts her early life.  This obituary in Nature is a testament to her scientific stature and the qualities that endeared her to many. A Celebration of Life, held recently at the Buck, featured heartfelt tributes from family members, friends and colleagues. 

We collected tributes from those who attended the service.  Here are some of our favorites:

There was no greater contributor than Judy to our understanding of cellular senescence. Despite the major influence of her work, she was absolutely devoid of hype. Golda Meir once said to someone, "Don't be so humble, you're not that great." Judy was both great and humble. My favorite memory: Dinner in a Spanish restaurant in New York City. Waiter suggests we might like sangria with our meal. Judy huffed, "No thanks. Doing that to wine is an abomination."
- Steve Austad, Distinguished Professor, University of Alabama, Birmingham

I was once at a conference with Judy. She was surrounded by her usual crowd, and I was on the outskirts. In the process of having a conversation on the periphery with a senior investigator, the investigator made a rather inconsiderate joke at my expense. Judy heard it, stopped what she was doing, and walked over. With a smile on her face, she put her fists up as and told the investigator if he wants to pick on her trainees, he needs to go through her. He laughed, but quickly disengaged from the conversation. While Judy disliked conflict, she was also fully willing to use her stature to protect those she cared about.
- Christopher Wiley, former Buck postdoc, now runs his own lab at Tufts University, Boston

All the years I've work at the Institute, Judy never overlooked those in administration who provided help or assistance to her or those in her lab and would email individuals personally on my team to thank them. For someone so busy and sought after, I always appreciated this about Judy. In addition to her incredible contributions to research on aging, it is also the simple little things that add up over the arc of a lifetime.
- Lise Castro, Buck Institute Director of Finance

Judy has been a wonderful mentor throughout my career from PhD to professor. I have learned so much from her. Her tough but fair approach has stuck with me as have her famous mottos that I still abide by: the ‘”data are the data” and “you are as good as your last paper” amongst the most memorable. One of the most endearing things she told me after I became a Principal Investigator and a mom was that as a PI I will now see how many more children I will have. I think we all felt like her kids at some level, and she definitely had our backs. I will miss her terribly.
- Simona Parrinello, former graduate student, now at University College London

One of the things I respected most about Judy was her willingness to listen. She could (and often would) completely disagree with people, but she would hear them out. She let them make their points and didn't often interrupt. I really admired the fact that such a prolific scientist treated people with so much respect and carried such a small ego.
- Jacob Rose, Buck Research Associate Schilling lab

In fierce scientific discussions, Judy would calmly raise her hands, close her eyes and depict in a visionary way the best solution and in a friendly manner reconcile opposing views as an ingenious way out of the discussion. She always stayed steady and friendly, never lost her temper. I lost not only an outstanding kind colleague, but also a close personal friend who I am now already dearly missing.
- Jan Hoeijmakers, collaborator, Principal Investigator, Erasmus MC, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Judy had an uncanny way of giving me the feeling I had her complete attention and encouraging me. When I gave talks, I would look over at Judy nodding along enthusiastically and gain confidence from her; it is amazing the effect that had! Now, as a leader of my own research group, I use Judy as a model for mentorship and only hope that I can inspire the same confidence in my trainees.
- Nathan Basisty, former Buck postdoc, now runs his own lab at the NIA/NIH

The first time I brought my husband, who is not a biologist, to Judy's party, Judy was surprised to find out that he didn't know anything about cellular senescence. She asked me, " What do you guys talk about at home?" and gave my husband a 20-minute education on cellular senescence, SASP, and aging. She tolerated and answered all the embarrassingly dumb questions from my husband during that mini class and eventually convinced him that cellular senescence is the key driver of aging
- Su Liu, Former Buck postdoc, now a Senior Scientist at Astellas Gene Therapies

I appreciated how Judy would interrupt faculty in group meetings to hear what students and postdocs thought- I always liked that about her.
- Shona Mookerjee, Buck Research Scientist


Science is showing that while chronological aging is inevitable, biological aging is malleable. There's a part of it that you can fight, and we are getting closer and closer to winning that fight.

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