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October 2, 2008
Also appeared in print Oct. 13, 2008 p. 39

Career Change

HHMI Names Next Leader

Biochemist Robert Tjian selected as new president of Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Celia Henry Arnaud

Barbara Ries/HHMI 2008

Robert Tjian, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, will become the next president of Howard Hughes Medical Institute on April 1, 2009. Tjian takes over from Thomas R. Cech, who announced in April his plans to step down. (C&EN, April 14, page 12).

Tjian, 59, has been an HHMI investigator since 1987. "It's a great departure for me to even think about a position like this," Tjian says. "I'm basically a bench scientist."

Tjian nevertheless accepted the job because "there is no job quite as amazingly unique as HHMI leadership," he says. The institute is "in the very unusual circumstance of having substantial resources that can really make a big impact on the direction of life sciences research and education." He also feels "a tremendous sense of loyalty" for the many years of funding he has received from the institute. "This is the time to pay back," he says.

At this point in what he describes as a steep learning curve, Tjian does not foresee major changes at HHMI. "There aren't programs that need major revisions," he says. Born in Hong Kong, Tjian was raised in New Jersey. As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, he worked with biochemist Daniel Koshland. He received a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley in 1971 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1976. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship with James Watson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

In 1979, he returned to UC Berkeley as a faculty member. He currently serves as director of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center and as faculty director of the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical Science.

Tjian's research focuses on the biochemical processes involved in turning genes on and off. He is known for his pioneering work in transcription factors. While serving as HHMI president at the institute's Chevy Chase, Md., headquarters, Tjian plans to remain active in research at UC Berkeley and at HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus in nearby Loudoun County, Va.

"It is important for people who are in the position of science leadership to stay engaged in science," he says. "Because science moves so quickly, if I left the lab entirely, I'd probably be fumbling around not really knowing what was going on after a few years."

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ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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