Robert Tjian

As HHMI’s new president, Robert Tjian hopes to continue funding for “science that makes sense.”

(Barbara Ries for HHMI/2008)

Berkeley’s Tjian to head Howard Hughes Medical Institute, top provider of private funds for biomedical research

| 01 October 2008

Molecular biologist Robert Tjian has been elected president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the world’s largest private funders of biomedical research.

Tjian, 59, will assume his new role on April 1, 2009, overseeing an organization that supports more than 350 investigators at 67 universities, medical schools, and research organizations across the United States. Founded in 1953 by Howard Hughes, HHMI has spent more than $8.3 billion over the past two decades on research support, training, and education of the nation’s top or most promising scientists. It currently has an endowment of $17.5 billion.

“It’s an exciting opportunity,” says Tjian, a professor of molecular and cell biology and director of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center. “I think that the head of HHMI is one of the most influential positions a scientist can have in terms of helping set the direction and policy of the educational and research program in the United States, and probably internationally.”

Tjian, who has been an HHMI investigator since 1987, adds, “I feel a sense of responsibility after more than 20 years as an investigator with the institute. It is a great chance to give back and a huge honor to be asked.”

“Bob Tjian has been a true force of nature in the life sciences here at Berkeley, through both his own research and his dynamic leadership,” says Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. “He has been an invaluable colleague during my time as chancellor. I have no doubt that he will be a great president of HHMI.”

In announcing the election on Tuesday, Sept. 30, Hanna Gray, chairman of the HHMI trustees and head of the committee that conducted the search for a new president, noted that “Dr. Tjian is not only a distinguished and productive scientist but also a committed teacher and mentor of young scientists. He is known as a person of impeccable taste in science who commands a great breadth of understanding across the life sciences.”

“The HHMI has really made a terrific choice,” says Tjian’s friend and colleague Michael Botchan, professor and co-chair of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. “Tij really embodies all the qualities an institution like the HHMI needs in a leader.”

As Botchan points out, HHMI has led the way in some areas, such as stem-cell research, where public funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have had their hands tied by political decisions from the White House.

“In many ways the president of HHMI has more individual authority and ability to help medical research in the U.S. than even the director of NIH,” Botchan says.

Tjian agrees. “HHMI has a much longer view of things, and can fund the science that makes sense. And HHMI’s goal is not to fund projects but to fund people. They have the capacity and mechanism to go and identify the best 300 or so investigators in the whole country and then fund them quite generously, and leave them alone to do risky, high-impact research that really puts the U.S. on the cutting edge. We need a lot more of it.”

As HHMI president, Tjian will succeed Nobel laureate Thomas Cech, a 1975 Berkeley Ph.D. who has served in that capacity since January 2000. Cech announced his decision to step down from the presidency earlier this year in order to return to full-time research and teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Tjian is known for his research tracking down the proteins that regulate the transcription of genes into RNA, the blueprint for production of proteins. His laboratory has illuminated the relationship between disruptions in the process of transcription and human diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and Huntington’s. More recently he has begun studying how transcription factors control the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into muscle, liver, and neurons.

Tjian plans to continue to run his Berkeley laboratory, while moving a small portion of his research to HHMI’s relatively new research campus, called Janelia Farm, located in rural Virginia. He already collaborates with a small team of visiting scientists at Janelia Farm on a project to develop new approaches that will allow them to image biochemical activities in single living cells.

A native of Hong Kong, Tjian obtained his B.S. in biochemistry at Berkeley in 1971, his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1976, and, after a postdoctoral fellowship with Nobelist James Watson at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, joined the Berkeley faculty in 1979. He has served in many leadership roles on campus, in particular spearheading the Health Sciences Initiative campaign to raise money for a broad range of biomedical and health-science research on the campus. Fruits of that effort are the new Stanley Hall, completed last year as a site for multidisciplinary biomedical research, and the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, which is now under construction and will house the campus’s stem-cell center and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

Tjian is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received many awards honoring his scientific contributions, including the Alfred P. Sloan Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. He was named California Scientist of the Year in 1994.

Tjian and his wife, Claudia, an attorney, have two daughters and live in Berkeley.