Nobel laureate Tom Cech is returning to the University of Colorado full time this month after a 10-year stint as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md., and one of the nation's largest philanthropies.
A distinguished professor in CU-Boulder's chemistry and biochemistry department, Cech will resume teaching at CU-Boulder and will continue research efforts at his campus laboratory, which have been ongoing by Cech during his HHMI tenure.
Cech, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery that RNA in living cells is not only a molecule of heredity but also can function as a catalyst, has been president of HHMI since January 2000 and a faculty member at CU-Boulder since 1978. He will resume his position at CU as an HHMI investigator, a position he was appointed to in 1988.
Cech said it was time to return home. "It's been an exciting decade for me to have been in Washington and have the privilege of leading this great research enterprise," he said. "I had to decide whether I wanted to continue on the administrative track or return to the ground level. I decided I really missed the daily contact with students, including teaching, and I missed the daily excitement of the research lab."
His plans are to teach a general chemistry course to CU-Boulder undergraduates in fall 2009. "I think you make the most impact on students if you catch them early and get them excited," said Cech. "I'm looking forward to the classroom."
Cech also will become director of the Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology, or CIMB, founded by CU-Boulder in 2003 to foster research, teaching and technology development at the interfaces of the life sciences, physical sciences, math, computational sciences and engineering. Cech will be working closely with Professor Leslie Leinwand of the molecular, cellular and developmental biology department, the current director.
"This initiative has been under the able leadership of Leslie Leinwand, and we will continue to work together on energizing the program and bringing together scientists from different fields who normally don't interact much," said Cech.
CIMB includes a planned $115 million research and teaching facility to be built in the CU-Boulder Research Park. With funding from both public and private sources, the 260,000-square-foot building is projected to host 60 faculty and more than 600 researchers from a wide variety of science, engineering and medical disciplines to collaborate on high-tech solutions to biomedical problems.
One of the goals of CIMB is to strengthen the ties between CU-Boulder and the University of Colorado Denver's Anschutz Medical Campus, Cech said. "We have a lot to learn from each other. The great basic science and engineering being done in Boulder is a good fit with the clinical and medical science being done so well at UC Denver."
"We couldn't be happier to have Tom back at the University of Colorado on a full-time basis," said CU-Boulder Interim Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano. "His research, teaching and leadership talents will help us move the university forward to an even higher level of excellence."
Cech's CU-Boulder research is focused on the activity and regulation of telomerase, a key enzyme for replicating the ends of chromosomes known as telomeres. While too much telomerase activity at the chromosome caps can promote tumors, telomeres also may have implications for stemming the processes of aging, he said. "We believe there are a lot of potential medical applications," he said.
Also a rostered faculty member in CU-Boulder's MCD biology department and UC Denver's Anschutz Medical Campus, Cech is one of four HHMI investigators at CU-Boulder. Of the roughly 350 HHMI investigators nationwide, 13 are Nobel laureates and 124 are members of the National Academy of Sciences.
While the current global recession is "the most challenging economic climate in a generation, it frankly is exciting in some ways," said Cech. "It pulls out some of the best characteristics of people who are rising to the challenge. When times are rough, there is an opportunity to come out stronger by making tough decisions about issues that are core to one's mission."
Cech spearheaded several new initiatives at HHMI, including construction of the $500 million Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia to support brain circuitry research, including imaging technologies and computational analysis. He also launched new programs to support interdisciplinary biomedicine collaborations, broadened the selection process for investigators and developed new science education activities.
In addition to the 1989 Nobel Prize, Cech has won a number of other international awards and prizes, including the Heineken Prize of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (1988), the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1988) and the National Medal of Science (1995). In 1987, Cech was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and also was awarded an American Cancer Society professorship.
HHMI provides more than $600 million annually to investigators spread across the United States for salaries, staffing and laboratory research funding. HHMI employees are based at their home institutions and typically lead research groups of students, postdoctoral researchers and technicians. The institute also distributes more than $80 million annually for science education.