David Page elected Director of Whitehead Institute

December 8, 2005

Tags: Page LabAwards + Announcements

Cambridge, Mass. - The Whitehead Institute Board of Directors has announced that faculty Member David Page has been elected the fourth Director of the Institute. Page takes this position following his appointment as Interim Director, which began in December, 2004.

“The Whitehead Board and I are delighted that David Page has been elected Director of Whitehead,” says Alex d’Arbeloff, Chairman of the Whitehead Institute Board of Directors. “I have enjoyed working with David since last fall and have found that he has an amazing ability to listen and to lead. I know that David will make significant contributions to the future success of Whitehead, and I look forward to our continued association.”

“I can’t think of anyone else who I’d rather see leading the Institute at this point in time,” says Susan Lindquist, Whitehead Member and Director of the Institute from 2001 to 2004. “Not only is David a brilliant scientist, but over the last year he’s shown himself to be a leader. I'm excited at the prospect of what’s in store for Whitehead with David as Director, and I look forward to working with him in this capacity.”

Gerald Fink, Director of the Institute from 1990 to 2001, has watched Page’s career blossom from the time he was a student. “David has an uncanny sixth sense that will help him guide the Whitehead,” says Fink. “That sixth sense has two components: a deep insight into the future direction of science and a delightful sense of humor. The first is important in steering the Institute as it enters into uncharted waters and the second is key to buoying our hopes for success as we venture ahead.”

“To my mind, the Whitehead Institute is an artist colony extraordinaire,” says Whitehead Institute's new Director David Page. “My vision is that in the years ahead we will continue to attract the best young minds and provide them a place to realize dreams.”

David Baltimore, founding Director of Whitehead and current President of California Institute of Technology, says, “David is both an extraordinary scientist and a level-headed, considerate and thoughtful person. I believe he will make a great Director for the Whitehead Institute at an important moment of renewal for this great institution.”

Page’s own research will continue to focus on the question of sex determination: How does the difference in genetics between males (XY) and females (XX) result in such different development and morphology? This question has vexed scientists for years because it was commonly thought that the Y chromosome was mostly junk DNA. For this reason, many scientists were surprised when Page’s laboratory embarked on the complete Y chromosome DNA sequence.

But Page soon gained a reputation as the scientist who restored dignity to the Y chromosome. “I often say that the Y is the Rodney Dangerfield of the chromosome world,” Page has joked. “It gets no respect.” Nowhere was this lack of respect more apparent than in one report announcing that the human Y would be extinct in another 10 million years. The authors argued that because the Y lacked a chromosome “mate” to provide the material to fix any damaged genes, the Y would eventually deteriorate. (All chromosomes come in pairs, except for the Y, which is matched with the X chromosome.)

Page and his collaborators surprised the scientific world with two fundamental discoveries about the Y that reversed these long-held beliefs. First, they discovered that the Y chromosome had quite a few genes and these were required for male fertility. Second, they found that the Y chromosome had an amazing architecture. Through sequencing the Y, Page and his collaborators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis discovered that many of its genes were organized in palindromes, long stretches of DNA read the same forwards and backwards—a chromosomal equivalent of “Madam I’m Adam”. If the “M” on Madam becomes mutated, the chromosome could then fold into a hairpin and the “m” in Adam would then swap the appropriate genetic material. This self-correction mechanism permits the Y chromosome to maintain the integrity of its genes and argues against the demise of the Y.

“I believe the two roles of director and scientist enhance one another,” says Page. “Keeping my feet planted firmly in the day-to-day life of the lab helps me be a more effective Director. And likewise, being Director helps me see my lab’s work in the context of the Institute’s scientific mission. To my mind, the Whitehead Institute is an artist colony extraordinaire. My vision is that in the years ahead we will continue to attract the best young minds and provide them a place to realize dreams.”

Page, who is also a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduated from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program in 1984 with a concentration in genetics. That same year he came to Whitehead as one of the Institute’s first Fellows. Two years later he became a faculty Member.

A Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Whitehead, Page also is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes that include the MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship (1986), the Searle Scholar’s Award (1989), the Amory Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1997), and the Curt Stern Award from the American Society of Human Genetics (2003). In 2005, Page was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

David Page

Whitehead Director David Page.

Photo: Sam Ogden


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