Remembering Deborah Zamble

July 7, 2020 by Department of Chemistry

It is with profound regret and sadness that I share with you the news that our colleague and friend, Professor Deborah Zamble, has passed away at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre following an unexpected brain hemorrhage. Deborah was a fantastic member of our Department and her death at such an early age is especially shocking. 

Deborah was born in Kingston Ontario in 1971. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, a PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (with Stephen Lippard), and post-graduate work at Harvard (with Christopher Walsh). She returned to the University of Toronto in 2001 joining our department. She became a Full Professor of Chemistry and was cross-appointed to the Department of Biochemistry. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, and she was a Canada Research Chair in Biological Chemistry (2001-2010). Her stature is further evident from her service on the Editorial Boards of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Metallomics, the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, on the Board of the Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science, and was elected to the Council of the Society of Biological Inorganic Chemistry.

Deborah chose research problems where the intersection of chemistry and biology made for great science. She was an expert in both areas and took a special interest in the role of metal ions in life processes at all levels, from proteins to human disease. Her unifying theme was elucidating the role of nickel in life processes and the systems that control the level in an organism – too much and it is a poison, too little and its function is restricted. The problem is profound and attacks the question of how living systems provide a delicate balance of trace metal ions. Many pathogenic bacteria require nickel and have a variety of pathways to maintain nickel availability and distribution while restricting undesirable exposure to avoid toxicity.

Deborah and her students pioneered studies into the mechanisms that bacteria use to sense and select for nickel in an overwhelming background of other metal ions. Her research revealed how selective coordination strategies, coupled to protein conformational changes control regulatory signalling, and provide for the existence of critically specific protein-protein interactions. She gave us an understanding of the nature of those interactions at a molecular level through structural biology, protein chemistry, microbiology and inorganic complexes has given us an unsurpassed understanding of how the systems that provide and avoid nickel operate. For an overview of Deborah’s research in the area of bioinorganic chemistry, and specifically the understanding of nickel metalloproteins, please see her publications: J Biol Chem 295, 1673-1684 (2019), Curr Opin Chem Biol 37, 80-88 (2017), and Chem Rev 109, 4617-43 (2009). 

Deborah was an outstanding mentor to the students in her group, and an invaluable member of the biological chemistry group. She held everyone in the Department to a high standard and was an important contributor to the growth of our Department and the Biological Chemistry group. She was a highly skilled, caring and enthusiastic instructor who taught at all undergraduate and graduate classroom levels. Early on in her teaching career, she was instrumental in redesigning CHM 379H (Biomolecular Chemistry: the flagship course of the Biological Chemistry specialist program), where laboratories and classes were reconfigured to model a research investigation into the structure/function relationship of an enzyme.

This significant departure from more traditional-style chemistry experiments proved incredibly popular with students, and it was for this and other work that Deborah received a Faculty of Arts & Science Outstanding Teaching Award in 2007. More recently, Deborah conceived of and crafted a second-year course based on her love of cooking: "Science of the Modern Kitchen" (CHM 209H). This highly interactive course was co-taught with her graduate students, and attracted many undergraduates from diverse backgrounds across the university. Deborah's commitment to the student experience was never more visible than during the COVID-19 crisis this March, when her efforts to continue teaching CHM 209H with minimal disruptions were phenomenal.           

Deborah was an extraordinarily generous colleague, always willing to share expertise, knowledge, and resources. She was always charming, generous, and spirited in her opinions and contributions to the Department, our students and faculty, and on the field of chemistry. She gave tirelessly, supporting her co-workers and students, always going beyond our expectations at every opportunity. Her efforts to build the biological chemistry graduate program within the chemistry department provided an important direction for excellence. Her engagement with student development led to the introduction of Biological Chemistry Days, where students present their work in a model conference mode, as well as new courses that address important modern topics. Her scientific openness spurred creativity and collaboration throughout the department. 

I will miss her devotion to the well-being of the department and our students, her keen intellect and analytical skills. Deborah was someone who could always be relied upon and whose guidance was invaluable. She had a wonderful sense of humour, loved cookery and gardening and was a prodigious reader. Above all she was a devoted wife and mother to her two sons.

A private ceremony will be held for immediate family only. A life celebration will held at a later date when current restrictions are removed, and the Department will celebrate and memorialize Deborah’s contributions to our Department and to Science through a scholarship (or similar, tbd). In lieu of flowers, her family has requested that donations can be made to the Neurology Division at Sunnybrook. Condolences can be sent to her family via the Benjamin Park Memorial Chapel

Students who are in need of support/assistance can reach out to the Health & Wellness Centre (416-978-8030). Health & Wellness is providing online counselling, which can be booked electronically at this time. Staff and Faculty who are in need of support/assistance can contact U of T’s Employee and Family Assistance provider, Homewood Health (1-800-663-1142.) Homewood Health is also providing online counselling at this time and they are available 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to her husband, children and family members, as well as to the members of the Zamble group. We are diminished as a Department because of her loss, and will miss every aspect of our dear colleague as a scientist, teacher, and friend.


Professor Rob Batey
(with contributions from Professors Mark Nitz, Ron Kluger, Drew Woolley and Andy Dicks)