Professor Kirn Remembered for Neurobiology Research, Gentle Demeanor

John Robert Kirn, professor of biology, died on Nov. 10 at the age of 67.

John Kirn

John Kirn

Kirn was born in Columbus, Ohio, and received his BA from the University of Denver, his MA from Bucknell University, and his PhD from Cornell University. Arriving at Wesleyan in 1994, he went on to teach courses on animal behavior, hormonal systems, and the neurobiology of learning and memory for the next 25 years. Kirn was a vital member of the biology department and a pillar of the neuroscience and behavior program (NS&B). He served as the director of graduate studies from 2005–2010, as the chair of the biology department from 2015–2017, and as the chair of the NS&B program for 12 consecutive years from 2001–2013, during a period of tremendous growth in the NS&B major.

Kirn’s research on song learning and song maintenance in birds explored questions of neuronal replacement and the ways the brain acquires and stores information. This is a critical area of neuroscience research, with important clinical applications that help us understand the potentially parallel processes that occur in humans during recovery from brain injury. John’s work was widely respected for opening new neurobiological paradigms and was often published in the most authoritative journals in the field, including The Journal of Neuroscience. He received numerous grants supporting his research from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, as well as a recent three-year grant from the Whitehall Foundation.

“John was an unusual combination: a highly accomplished scientist and lab head, and an exceptionally kind and gentle person,” said colleague Sonia Sultan, professor of biology.

Gloster Aaron, associate professor of biology, described John as having “a very gentle demeanor” and as “a kind and caring colleague and mentor.”

Ann Burke, chair and professor of biology, said Kirn was respected for his intellect and loved for his generous personality and wry sense of humor. “He trained over 17 graduate students in his lab, and influenced hundreds of undergraduates in his classes,” Burke said. “His colleagues and students are deeply saddened by his loss.”

Kirn is survived by his two children, Jake and Ella, and their mother Cynthia Seiwert.

A memorial event will be held on campus later this year. Read Kirn’s full obituary online here.