Incoming. Biochemist Robert Tjian will take over the reins at HHMI in April.

Barbara Ries/HHMI (2008)

Howard Hughes Chooses Its Next Leader

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the largest private funder of biomedical research in the United States, announced its new president today. He is University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Robert Tjian, a longtime Hughes investigator known as a driven researcher and devoted mentor. In April, Tjian will replace Thomas Cech, who will return to the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The Chevy Chase, Maryland-based HHMI, which has an endowment of $17.5 billion and had a $685 million budget last year, is best known for supporting 350 investigators at universities and for funding education programs and scientists abroad. Tjian said there are many reasons why he accepted the job offer, including to give back to the institution that has funded him for 22 years. Moreover, Hughes "has a huge impact," and "I think it's a fantastic opportunity to try to help scientific research and science education in the United States and internationally," Tjian says.

Tjian, 59, studies the biochemistry of gene transcription. At Berkeley, he has been heavily involved in recruiting new scientists, reshaping research and education programs, and directing an initiative that promotes interdisciplinary research. He also co-founded Tularik, a biotech company that was sold to Amgen in 2004 for $1.3 billion.

HHMI board of trustees member Joseph Goldstein says this range of experiences made Tjian "exactly right" for a job that has become more complicated in the past few years, as Cech began new programs and oversaw the creation of HHMI's first research campus, Janelia Farm, in Loudoun County, Virginia. Tjian is "an outstanding scientist, he's an excellent mentor to students and postdoctoral fellows, he's interested in education, he has a reputation for being very organized, and he has a broad view of biology and medicine," says Goldstein, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who has known Tjian for more than 20 years.

"He's a terrific choice," agrees Johns Hopkins University cancer geneticist Bert Vogelstein, a Hughes investigator, who suspects that Tjian's wide interests played a big role in his selection. Vogelstein adds that Tjian "is extremely well liked" by other Hughes investigators. The news was also welcome at Janelia Farm, where Tjian has a collaboration and keeps gear for fishing in a local pond, says Janelia bioinformatics researcher Sean Eddy: "I can't think of anyone I'd rather have."

As Cech did during his 8 years at HHMI, Tjian plans to keep his Berkeley lab--he says he wouldn't have taken the job otherwise--but he will spend no more than 1 day a week there and at Janelia. He has also agreed to give up his position on the boards of several biotech companies by April.

Tjian says that he has no specific new programs in mind coming in: "I need to go in there and take a look." For now, he plans to continue HHMI's aim of funding the "right people." He expects to visit Hughes in the coming months while Cech is still there to "learn the ropes."