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Acclaimed molecular biologist Susan L. Lindquist has been appointed director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. She succeeds yeast genetics pioneer Gerald Fink, who will step down as director after serving 10 years, the most allowed in this position. Lindquist will assume her new role on October 15.
A pioneering researcher with an interdisciplinary bent, Lindquist comes from the University of Chicago, where she is the Albert D. Lasker Professor of Medical Sciences, a professor in the department of molecular genetics and cell biology, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
"Sue is a brilliant scientist whose discoveries on new types of inheritance and disease have brought her international acclaim. Her rare mix of intelligence, vision and concern for others makes her a natural leader for charting new territories in biomedical research," said Fink, who plans to continue his Whitehead research program on fungal diseases and cell growth.
Lindquist's research profile dovetails well with the breadth of pioneering programs at the Whitehead Institute. Well known for her work on heat shock proteins in yeast and fruit flies, she was thrust into the scientific limelight when her research provided the definitive evidence for a new form of genetics based upon the inheritance of proteins with new, self-perpetuating shapes rather than new DNA sequences. This work provided a biochemical framework for understanding other mysteries in biology, including "mad cow" disease.
Another groundbreaking piece of research from Lindquist's lab helped fill in a crucial missing piece in the puzzle of biodiversity in evolution. Most recently, her foray into organic fibers that can self-organize into structures smaller than manufactured materials promises to bring the interdisciplinary world of biomaterials and nanotechnology to new heights.
"We knew that Sue was a world-renowned scientist, but we were thrilled to experience first-hand her dynamic personality and her scientific verve. When we saw how she interacted with the Whitehead faculty and fellows, we all agreed that she would make an excellent leader. She really excites and stimulates those around her," said Susan Whitehead, chair of the Whitehead board of directors who led the six-month long search process.
In conjunction with her Whitehead appointments, Lindquist will also become a professor of biology at MIT. The Whitehead Institute, which is independent in its research activities, is affiliated with MIT in its teaching activities; all faculty members at Whitehead hold joint appointments in MIT's Department of Biology.
"The appointment of Professor Lindquist as director of the Whitehead Institute is an inspired choice. Professor Lindquist's research interests are representative of the breadth and depth of modern molecular biology and its growing linkages to other disciplines. I am sure she will lead the Whitehead Institute in new creative directions in the years ahead," said Provost Robert Brown.
A native of Chicago, Lindquist received a B.A. in microbiology from the University of Illinois and earned her Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University. She held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago and then became an assistant professor of biology there. She was promoted to associate professor of biology in 1984 and became a full professor in 1988, the same year she was named an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
"The Whitehead Institute is extremely fortunate to have attracted Susan as its leader," says Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. "Susan Lindquist is a dynamic and innovative scientist, and her enthusiasm for both science and life is infectious. She is also an unusually gifted communicator of science, whose interests extend well beyond her own research areas. She will bring new insights and vigor to the entire MIT scientific community."
Among Lindquist's many honors are election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996 and the National Academy of Sciences in 1997. She was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology in 1997 and the Albert D. Lasker Professor of Medical Sciences in 1999; last year, she received the Novartis Drew Award in Biomedical Research. She is also former secretary of the Genetics Society of America.
Lindquist said she's looking forward to being at the helm at Whitehead especially as biomedical research is moving at a thrilling pace. "I want to maintain the momentum that has made Whitehead a world-renowned research institute. I see biology becoming more and more an interdisciplinary science, with physics, chemistry and evolutionary biology all coming together. When worlds collide, sparks fly. This is allowing us to take old problems and attack them in new ways," she said.
"Susan Lindquist has a superb and innovative intellect and will be an outstanding member of the MIT faculty and community. We are very fortunate that she will join us, and I look forward to her leadership," said President Charles Vest.
"We're very excited about Susan Lindquist joining as a colleague and as director of the Whitehead Institute. She's a great scientist and a wonderful person, and will be a very thoughtful and effective leader," said Professor Robert Sauer, head of the biology department.
Lindquist will bring about 10 scientists with her to Whitehead and plans to recruit several others once she arrives here. "I plan to continue to do science with the same intensity as in the past. Whitehead is giving me the opportunity to help lead such an eminent group and continue my own science," she said. She's looking forward to collaborating not only with Whitehead researchers, but also with those in the broader MIT community.
Though initially hesitant about leaving family and friends in Chicago, Lindquist was convinced by the unique opportunities at Whitehead. "The size and culture of the Whitehead Institute offer me the ability to function in a leadership role in a nonbureaucratic setting and allow me to maintain an active research program," she said, pointing out that there's precedence to show it can be done. Her predecessors, Gerald Fink and David Baltimore, both ran thriving research programs and published groundbreaking research during their tenure as directors.
"I was also struck by the vibrancy at the Whitehead," she added. "The extraordinary quality of science, the camaraderie and the supportive environment of the Institute won me over. It's wonderful to find so many good people doing cutting-edge science in one place."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 15, 2001.