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Movers And Shakers

Thomas Cech

In relinquishing the helm at HHMI, Nobel prize-winning biochemist will return to research and teaching roots

by Celia Henry Arnaud
April 21, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 16

Credit: Paul Fetters for HHMI
Credit: Paul Fetters for HHMI

IT'S TIME TO GO home. After more than eight years as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), chemistry Nobel Laureate Thomas R. Cech announced earlier this month that he will step down in spring 2009. He plans to return to teaching and research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he has been a faculty member since 1978.

"A lot of the things I hoped to accomplish are well on their way, if not done," Cech says. "The next big thing that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute engages in deserves to have somebody who's going to see it through. Some of these projects are five to 10 years in length. Given that I'm not going to stay for another decade, this seems like an appropriate time for me to return to being engaged directly with research and teaching."

Cech joined HHMI in January 2000 with a goal of building bridges between the institute's research and education programs. "I felt at Howard Hughes there were strong research programs and strong educational programs, and never the twain shall meet," he says. "We have found innumerable opportunities to connect what were previously very isolated programs."

For example, some HHMI investigators (the scientists in the institute's flagship Investigator Program) now provide research experiences to underrepresented minority students through HHMI's Exceptional Research Opportunities Program, EXROP. "This really draws from the resources that we have already established in the colleges and universities and in the Investigator Program but now draws a line between them and connects them in a new way," Cech says.

He notes that HHMI supports investigators "to make scientific discoveries and to solve problems at the interface between basic science and medicine." But HHMI provides opportunities for those with an interest in undergraduate education. "We lift the curtain and show what we have to offer," he says.

One of the initiatives that Cech has yet to see through is HHMI's recently announced Early Career Scientist Competition program. These six-year, nonrenewable positions are intended to "throw a lifeline to excellent junior faculty at a time in their career when they have some of their most creative ideas," Cech says.

HHMI expects to receive thousands of applications by the June 10 deadline because the institute now uses an open application process rather than its traditional nomination process. "We're committed to having a very thoughtful, science-based evaluation of all these candidates," Cech says.

Cech had to decide whether his return to academic life would mean a return to the university that has been his intellectual home for 30 years.

"I thought a lot about this," Cech says. "Do I want to go from HHMI, which has such abundant resources, back to a state that ranks about 48 out of 50 in support for higher education? I don't mind a challenge, but I wanted to make sure that there were others in the state who shared my vision that it's time to make the University of Colorado the best academic research and educational center in most of the western U.S." He believes that like-minded people are in positions of political and university leadership in Colorado.

Returning to the life of a professor might seem anticlimactic after a stint as the president of one of the most influential private medical philanthropies, but Cech has no desire to take on another administrative job—and it's not that he hasn't been asked.

"I have had several opportunities to be president of a major research university," he tells C&EN. "I'm already in the best administrative job that I can imagine for me personally: We have lots of resources, an $18.7 billion unrestricted endowment, no money-raising responsibilities—we don't even allow people to contribute to Hughes—and a very high quality, dedicated staff here at the headquarters. We're in a position where, if we can't make an impact on a problem, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. That's a wonderful situation to be in."

AT THE SAME TIME, Cech realized that a university presidency would take him even further from his own research and teaching than he has been while at HHMI. Such a position is "a 24/7 job," he notes. "As long as you're working 24/7, people can't complain that much. If you carve out time for your own scholarly work, I don't think people would look kindly on that."

During his tenure at HHMI, Cech has maintained a small-but-active research group in Boulder that has focused on the ends of chromosomes (telomeres) and the enzyme that synthesizes them (telomerase). He expects to continue working in that area and expand into research on noncoding RNA.

Back at Colorado, people can expect to see Cech in the undergraduate classroom. He taught general chemistry for six years in the 1990s, and he looks forward to getting back to teaching. "That's where the biggest opportunity is to improve things," he says. "It's very challenging to teach well in a large-class format. I don't think I have any magic solution to this, but I'm willing to give it another try."



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