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Prof. Ernest Peralta, Noted Neurobiologist, Dies at 40

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After a hard-fought battle with brain cancer, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Ernest G. Peralta died at his Cambridge home on Monday. He was 40.

Peralta, an accomplished neuroscientist, accrued high praise from his students and colleagues for his work in cell communication and the passion he brought to his research.

"Science was at the center of his being," said Anthony D. Morielli, a post-doctoral scholar in Peralta's laboratory. "He was amazing."

Peralta taught biochemistry and molecular biology to undergraduates, and was known as an easygoing man with an intense passion for his research.

The St. Louis, Mo., native garnered several prestigious honors during his career, including the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation, the McKnight Scholar Award and the Searle Scholarship.

Peralta's wife, Renate Hellmiss-Peralta, said her husband was a "workaholic," but also enjoyed playing the guitar, which he studied for several years.

Peralta was also an intense sports fan, Morielli recalled, and enjoyed talking about professional football with his students.

In his self-description on his laboratory group's Web site, Peralta had a message for any scouts from the San Francisco 49ers: "Ernie...would consider leaving his positon as a tenured professor should the 49'ers need a little help with their passing game."

Hellmiss-Peralta and her husband, who celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary this year, met at a Girl Scout camp that she attended as an exchange student from Germany.

He was the camp's summer maintenance worker, and was the only young man around for miles, Hellmiss-Peralta said.

"Now you know why he kept coming back year after year," Hellmiss-Peralta chuckled.

The two married in 1983.

After graduating from Northwestern, Peralta received a doctorate from Indiana University in 1986. His work at a San Francisco-based biotechnology firm, Genentech, attracted several tenure offers--and Harvard's eye.

Peralta accepted an assistant professorship at Harvard in 1989.

He rose to the rank of associate professor four years later and earned full tenure in 1996.

He learned of his medical condition soon after.

For two years, Peralta tried various treatments, and lived longer than most people with his condition.

Students said they admired his courageousness.

"He was really a fighter," Morielli said. "He literally never complained."

And Hellmiss-Peralta, who also said the professor had a "strong will to live and fight," pointed to one moment that exemplified her husband's strength.

When she told him it was unfair that he had contracted cancer, he replied, "I'd rather it be me that someone else."

A funeral mass will take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday at St. Peter's Parish in Cambridge.

After an internment at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, friends and family will attend a "memorial party to celebrate his life," Hellmiss-Peralta said.

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