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Erin O’Shea

Erin O’Shea

James Kegley/HHMI

Biochemist tapped as first woman to lead one of world’s largest private biomedical funders

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has chosen as its next president Erin O’Shea, a biochemist who is now chief scientific officer of the giant medical philanthropy. O’Shea will become the first woman to head the HHMI.

The largest private funder of academic biomedical research in the United States, the Chevy Chase Maryland-based HHMI has an $18.2 billion endowment and spent $666 million to support research last year (it also supports education programs). O’Shea, 50, is a long-time HHMI investigator who studies gene regulation and signal transduction; she left Harvard University for HHMI in 2013 but still has a lab there. She is a former postdoc of current HHMI president Robert Tjian, who has led the organization since 2009.

O’Shea, who starts 1 September, says she agreed to take the top job at HHMI because of “a tremendous opportunity to have a lasting, positive impact on science.” Her priorities will be to maintain HHMI’s flagship investigator program, which supports around 330 investigators at institutions across the country, as well as its Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. Both “are going well,” she says. She expects to expand HHMI’s partnerships with other philanthropies, such as one she helped create that supports early career investigators. She will also soon launch a major new program to promote diversity in biomedical research that has been in the works for 2 years. Like Tjian, she expects to continue to run a lab.

O’Shea is “an exceptionally capable, energetic, peppy, and enthusiastic scientist who brings fresh ideas for expanding HHMI’s mission to drive science forward,” says longtime HHMI trustee Joseph Goldstein of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He praised O’Shea’s efforts to build HHMI’s support of physician-scientists and to provide research opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities.

The announcement today drew a flurry of excitement: “Erin O'Shea named President of HHMI. First woman in its history,” wrote HHMI investigator Leslie Vosshall of Rockefeller University in New York City in a widely retweeted message. O’Shea says her gender is important “only in sense that it sends a message that women can make it to the top at HHMI. It does make a lot of people feel good and feel hopeful about the future.”

Neuroscientist Cori Bargmann, also an HHMI investigator at Rockefeller, agrees: “In 2016, it should not be a big deal that she's a woman! But as scientific director, she has taken a serious interest in programs for women, underrepresented minorities, and young scientists. An HHMI President with those priorities is a big deal,” Bargmann says.