Monitor news post


Huntington Willard, an innovative leader in the fields of genetics and genome biology who has built comprehensive research centers at leading institutions, has been appointed the next president and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer, who is also Chairman of the MBL’s Board of Trustees, announced the appointment to the MBL and University communities. MBL is an affiliate of the University of Chicago, a relationship designed to yield novel avenues for scientific discovery and education at both institutions.

At the MBL, Willard will lead one of the world’s foremost centers for biological research, international collaboration and education. Willard, currently the Arts & Sciences Professor of Biology and Genome Sciences at Duke University, will begin his appointment at the MBL on January 1, 2015.

Huntington Willard

Huntington Willard

Willard has earned a reputation as a groundbreaking scientist, a strong leader and builder of complex academic initiatives, as well as a talented educator who has received multiple teaching awards. From 2003 to 2014 he was the founding Director of the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, a highly interdisciplinary unit that spanned the life sciences, engineering, medicine, social sciences and the humanities. For that program, Willard recruited 35 faculty members to Duke across 21 departments and established broad institutional strength in the genome sciences. He had previously chaired the Department of Genetics at Case Western Reserve University, where he also built a widely respected program of research and education.

As a researcher, Willard has explored many facets of genetics and genome biology, with a particular interest in the structure and function of chromosomes, the epigenetic regulation of gene silencing, and the evolution and organization of complex genomes. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has won many awards for genetics scholarship, including the William Allan Award from the American Society of Human Genetics.

“Hunt Willard is an outstanding scholar and a proven scientific leader who has created programs that have earned international respect,” said Zimmer. “He exemplifies the values that guide the Marine Biological Laboratory and the University of Chicago — wide-ranging collaboration, eagerness to explore and define new fields of study, and a dedication to discovery through engaged education. We are delighted to welcome him to this community, and confident that he will lead the MBL in a way that preserves its strengths, creates new opportunities for growth, and takes advantage of the relationship with the University of Chicago.”

Willard said he was attracted by the MBL’s historic role as a beacon for scientists from around the world, including its renowned summer courses and creative year-round programs of research and education.

“I’m honored to be named the next president and director of MBL,” Willard said. “The MBL has enjoyed such a strong tradition of integrating research and education since its founding, and offers wonderful opportunities to develop and implement novel strategies for tackling some of the most pressing questions in life sciences and biomedical research today. The highly interdisciplinary nature of its year-round and visiting scientists and students offers unique combinations of scholarship, teamwork and adaptability that can’t be easily matched elsewhere. I can’t imagine a place that better illustrates the values of integrated research and education that are important to me — as a scientist, an educator and as a leader. I look forward with great enthusiasm to joining this community, at both MBL and the University of Chicago.”

Jennifer Morgan, an MBL scientist and associate director of the Eugene Bell Center for Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering, said Willard is a perfect fit for the MBL’s intellectual culture.

“As a leader who has brought together researchers with many diverse kinds of expertise, Hunt Willard is an exceptional choice to enrich the spirit of innovation and collaboration that has guided the MBL since its founding in 1888,” Morgan said.

The MBL is known as an institution dedicated to scientific discovery and improving the human condition through research and education in biology, biomedicine and environmental science. In July 2013 the MBL and the University of Chicago formed an affiliation that is producing growing collaborations between the two institutions and researchers at Argonne National Laboratory, which is managed by UChicago and has many research ties to the University.

In addition to his leadership of the MBL, Willard will have a faculty appointment in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago. Prior to his appointments at Duke and Case Western Reserve, Willard held faculty positions at the University of Toronto and Stanford University and was founding president and director of the University Hospitals of Cleveland Research Institute. He received his PhD in genetics from Yale University and his AB degree in biology from Harvard University.

Willard is widely considered a leading figure among American geneticists, having authored or contributed to more than 300 scholarly publications, providing fundamental insights and new tools for studying how cells inactivate genes on the X chromosome and what DNA sequences are involved in chromosome segregation during cell division. His team also received international attention in 1997 when it constructed the world’s first human artificial chromosome.

“What’s so extraordinary about Hunt Willard’s academic career is his demonstrated ability to lead the charge in scientific discovery, both as an investigator and as a director of several large, ambitious programs,” said Neil Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and associate dean for academic strategy in UChicago’s Biological Sciences Division. “He has a sense of where fields are going, and an ability to identify and recruit the best academic talent. That’s going to make him an outstanding leader for the MBL, and a great colleague for all of us.”

Sally Kornbluth, provost of Duke University and the James B. Duke Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, praised Willard’s contributions at Duke.

“Hunt Willard is a stellar scientist, an energetic teacher and an innovative leader who helped make genomics a point of excellence at Duke,” Kornbluth said. “His appointment at the MBL heralds an exciting opportunity for the laboratory.”

Willard will succeed Arthur M. Sussman, the MBL’s interim president and director, who assumed that role in November with the departure of former president and director Joan Ruderman. President Zimmer sent a message to the MBL community last May praising Ruderman’s record of commitment to the lab, which began in 1974 when she first arrived as a post-doctoral researcher.

Collaborative marine science took a leap of global proportions on June 21, 2014. At carefully orchestrated times on that day, hundreds of scientists around the world collected ocean samples, using standardized protocols, as part of the first international Ocean Sampling Day (OSD). They were united by the goal of identifying the microbial communities in all the samples–no small task given that one drop of seawater contains about 20 million microbes.

This movie features MBL Associate Scientist Linda Amaral-Zettler, who took a lead role in OSD as a scientific adviser to the project’s European sponsor, MicroB3, and who actively sampled and helped coordinate sampling in the Azorean Islands. Building a knowledge base of marine microbes is critical for understanding the impact of global challenges to ocean health, such as a warming climate.

“Sampling is expensive,” Amaral-Zettler says. “The more we can leverage individual regional efforts and resources, the better we will be in protecting the ocean.”

As soon as they were collected, the samples were frozen and shipped to Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany. The next step is to identify “who” are in the samples through DNA extraction and analysis.

OSD will take place again in 2015 and hopefully into the future, Amaral Zettler says, which would provide a long-term perspective on how marine microbial diversity changes over time. “We need to understand how things are changing in order to protect them.”

Akash Srivastava, a student in the Brown-MBL Graduate Program in Biological and Environmental Sciences, successfully defended his Ph.D. dissertation entitled “Transdifferentiation of Liver to Pancreas” on August 18 at Brown University. Srivastava, a student in the Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry Department (MCB) at Brown, conducted his research at the MBL’s Eugene Bell Center for Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering under the advisement of MBL Associate Scientist Marko Horb. His doctoral committee members also included Rich Freiman, Kristi Wharton, and Eric Morrow from the MCB Department.

Srivastava’s doctoral research helped to elucidate the molecular mechanisms involved in transdifferentiation of liver to pancreas in the frog Xenopus laevis. He identified a previously unknown role of a highly conserved beta-catenin inhibitor protein (Chibby) in transdifferentiation of liver to pancreas and in normal pancreas development. His research also provided a better understanding of the function of Wnt/beta catenin signaling in pancreas development. Funding for his research came from the Horb lab at with grant support from the National Institutes of Health.

After completing his final manuscripts, Srivastava plans to work as a validation consultant in the pharmaceutical industry.

Akash Srivastava defends his thesis at Brown University for his Ph.D. in the Brown-MBL Graduate Program.

Akash Srivastava defends his thesis at Brown University for his Ph.D. in the Brown-MBL Graduate Program.

Keating-at-OBFS-NML-meeting-9-2014-cropU.S. Representative Bill Keating visited Lillie Auditorium this morning to address members of the Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS) and the National Association of Marine Laboratories (NAML), who are holding a joint meeting at the MBL.

Keating remarked on the exponential advances in information technology that allow scientists to transmit data from field stations “instantly, accurately, and efficiently.” He also commended the two groups for collaborating. “Working jointly, with the information you gather, creates enormous opportunities” in the private sector as well as in environmental science, Keating said.

Keating represents the 9th district of Massachusetts, which includes Cape Cod and the islands. He was invited to the MBL by Sarah Oktay, president of OBFS and director of the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station. MBL Senior Scientist Alan Kuzirian is the founding secretary/treasurer of NAML ( from 1990-2014).

Jerry Melillo, distinguished scientist at the MBL's Ecosystems Center, leads a panel discussion of the National Climate Assessment yesterday at the White House. Melillo is chairman of the advisory committee that prepared the assessment for interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program. Screen shot by Gina Hebert.

Jerry Melillo, Distinguished Scientist at the MBL’s Ecosystems Center, leads a panel discussion of the National Climate Assessment yesterday at the White House. Melillo is chairman of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee. Screen shot by Gina Hebert.

The major messages of the Third National Climate Assessment released yesterday — climate change is already here, its impacts are being felt in every U.S. region, it is caused by human activity, and it is not too late to take action — were discussed far and wide, in thousands of news articles and broadcasts across the nation. For scientists like the MBL’s Jerry Melillo who have spent decades documenting global climate change, this is a great leap forward. This White House infographic summarizes some of the major findings of the Assessment, and outlines national plans to prepare for climate change impacts, reduce carbon pollution, and lead international efforts to address global climate change. Melillo is chairman of the federal advisory committee that prepared the assessment for the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program.

 

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