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.

The University of Chicago’s Neil Shubin, along with Michael Rosenfeld from Tangled Bank Productions and David Dugan from Windfall Films, will share the 2014 Kavli Science Journalism Award for “in-depth television reporting” for their three-part PBS series:
“Your Inner Fish.”

Neil Shubin, center, at the first University of Chicago-MBL Scientific Retreat in February 2014. Credit: Rob Kozloff/University of Chicago

Neil Shubin, center, at the first University of Chicago-MBL Scientific Retreat in February 2014. Credit: Rob Kozloff/University of Chicago

The coveted Kavli awards, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science since its inception in 1945, go to professional journalists for distinguished reporting for a general audience.

Please see the University of Chicago press release here. Shubin, a fish paleontologist, provides faculty leadership for the University of Chicago-MBL affiliation. His title at the university is Senior Advisor to the President and Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Anatomy.


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.”

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By Wallace Marshall
Co-director, MBL Physiology Course

Last month, I had a problem. I was teaching in the MBL Physiology course, using the giant, single-celled organism Stentor as a model system for students to learn quantitative approaches in cell biology. Stentor, which live in ponds, eat by creating a vortex of water that drags food into the cell’s mouth. The flow is created by thousands of cilia—tiny, hair-like cell parts that swing back and forth pushing fluid around. (Cilia are also critical for making the mucus in your airway flow away from your lungs, and patients with defects in these cilia can be really sick. So the question of how cilia make fluid flow is very important from a medical perspective. )

Stentor is a genus of large, trumpet-shaped ciliates, commonly found in freshwater ponds. Credit: EOL / micro*scope

Stentor is a genus of large, trumpet-shaped ciliates, commonly found in freshwater ponds. Credit: EOL / micro*scope

One of the students in our class, Shashank Shekhar from the CNRS Institute, France, had become interested in how the cell generates this pattern of fluid flow. Shashank started tracking the flow by putting small plastic beads into the water around the Stentor and then taking video images of the beads moving. This is a pretty standard approach in fluid dynamics called particle image velocimetry (PIV). But it’s not that commonly used in biology, and we didn’t entirely know what we were doing. The software we had been trying to use to track these particles didn’t give really nice flow lines. So this was the problem: How to use the flow of these tiny beads to figure out the pattern of flow around the cell as it feeds.

Frustrated by this problem, I decided to go get some coffee from Woods Hole Market. On the way back, I ran into my colleague Magdalena Bezanilla, an MBL Whitman Investigator from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who works on cell biology. She thinks a lot about things moving inside cells so I figured I could get her input into our PIV challenge.

We ended up chatting about the problem in the MBL’s Waterfront Park, and while we were talking, a couple of guys emerged from the harbor in full scuba gear, carrying a huge metal bracket upon which was mounted a video camera and a laser. (This would be quite weird back home but it’s business as usual in Woods Hole.) I asked the guys what they were up to and they said they were using PIV to study the flow of fluid around ctenophores! Ctenophores or comb jellies are jellyfish-like animals that swim using cilia. So at the exact moment that we were pondering how to use PIV to track cilia-generated fluid flow in our single-celled organisms in the Physiology course, a guy walks out of the water and announces that he is doing the exact same thing, for comb jellies! (Those people who say that Woods Hole is a magical place are telling the truth.)

The guys with the scuba gear and lasers were Jack Costello of Providence College and Sean Colin of Roger Williams University, Whitman Investigators working for the summer at the MBL. Jack offered to give us advice about how to analyze our data, so I sent Shashank over to Jack’s lab in the Rowe building. With Jack’s help and expertise, Shashank was able to get beautiful flow lines from his data (see photo), which clearly reveal the pattern of cilia-generated flow around the Stentor cell while it feeds. Our big problem was solved in a single day due to a fortuitous combination of people, courses, coffee breaks, cells, beaches, marine organisms, and advanced technology. And that’s what summer at the MBL is all about.

Fluid flow around Stentor visualized through particle image velocimetry. Courtesy of Wallace Marshall.

Fluid flow around Stentor as it feeds, visualized by particle image velocimetry. Courtesy of Wallace Marshall.

Thank you to Wallace Marshall of the University of California, San Francisco, for contributing this post. All MBL scientists, students, community members, and visitors are invited to submit items for the MBL’s blog. Please contact Diana Kenney:

: In a cell-free experimental system, interacting microtubule asters (green) recruit cytokinesis signals (Aurora B kinase, magenta). Credit: Phuong A. Nguyen, Harvard Medical School and MBL

In a cell-free experimental system, interacting microtubule asters (green) recruit cytokinesis signals (Aurora B kinase, magenta). Credit: Phuong A. Nguyen

Building a cell from its components is a synthetic approach to understanding cell biology that has emerged as a hot research goal in the past few years. Recently, a team of MBL visiting scientists from Harvard Medical School built a fully controllable, cell-free experimental system that allows them to visualize and study the final phase of cell division (cytokinesis), when the cell splits in two. This system consists of supported lipid bilayers that mimic the cell membrane, artificial centrosomes, and extract from the cytoplasm of frog (Xenopus) eggs. It represents the first-ever reconstitution of cytokinesis signaling outside of living cells. The group was able to assemble arrays of antiparallel microtubules that recruit cleavage furrow proteins that signal to the “cell cortex.” The spatial scale was unusually large, since Xenopus eggs are huge relative to human tissue cells, and as a result the team could query the biophysics of cytokinesis signaling over many minutes and many microns using powerful imaging modalities, notably TIRF (total internal reflection fluorescence) microscopy. This led them to several significant mechanistic discoveries. The research team included Phuong Nguyen, Aaron Groen, Martin Loose, Keisuke Ishihara, Martin Wuhr, Christine Field, and Timothy Mitchison. (Science, doi: 10.1126/science.1256773, 2014).

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