Whitehead Institute Founding Member Gerald Fink Receives Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Killian Award

Whitehead Founding Member Gerald Fink

Whitehead Founding Member Gerald Fink

Image: Gretchen Ertl/Whitehead Institute

May 16, 2018

Tags: Fink LabGenetics + GenomicsAwards + Announcements

Cambridge, MA - Whitehead Institute Founding Member and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) genetics professor Gerald Fink has been named the recipient of MIT’s 2018-2019 James R. Killian, Jr., Faculty Achievement Award. The Killian Award recognizes Fink’s standing as a scientist who has fundamentally changed the way researchers approach biological problems. He has made seminal contributions to understanding basic cellular processes critical to living systems, enabling important insights into human disease. Fink’s research has yielded a vast array of discoveries—from understanding how to engineer the genome to uncovering the mechanisms by which cells divide—and has significantly shaped modern science.

The Killian Award is among MIT’s highest honors. It was established as a permanent tribute to Dr. James R. Killian, Jr., former MIT president (1948–1959) and chairman of the Corporation (1959–1971); and it has been awarded to recognize extraordinary professional achievement by MIT faculty members. The Killian Award recipient holds the title of Killian Award Lecturer for the following academic year and presents one or more lectures to the MIT community on his or her own professional activities.

Across his prolific career, Fink's creative amalgam of genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology enabled the development of yeast for the analysis of fundamental biological mechanisms, such as gene regulation, DNA mutation, and genetic recombination—processes that are common to all organisms. His laboratory discovered how retroviruses can jump from one part of the genome to another. These “jumping genes” explained the instability of the genome and provided fertile ground for a whole new generation of geneticists.

Among Fink's most significant contributions to biomedicine is his development of a technique for introducing DNA from any organism into cells of the baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and the study of the inheritance and expression of that DNA. This technique laid the groundwork for the use of yeast as biological factories for manufacturing vaccines and biofuels. 

More recently, Fink has studied how human pathogenic yeast Candida albicans avoids detection by the immune system. Few antibiotics can treat a Candida infection, which can be deadly when it spreads to the blood stream. Fink showed that part of its success as a pathogen is its ability to switch from a cellular yeast to a filamentous invasive form. His studies provide new targets for the development of anti-fungal agents.

Fink is a Founding Member of Whitehead Institute, as well as the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor in Biomedical Research and the American Cancer Society Professor of Genetics at MIT. He was director of Whitehead from 1990 to 2001 and served on the faculty of Cornell University for 15 years prior to joining Whitehead in 1982. Fink received his doctorate in genetics from Yale University.

In addition to his roles at Whitehead and MIT, Fink served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and president of the Genetics Society of America (GSA). He also chaired the National Research Council committee that produced the 2004 landmark report, “Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual Use Dilemma.” The highly influential report—which recommended ways to minimize threats from biological warfare and bioterrorism without hindering the progress of biotechnology—reflects Fink’s wisdom and skill in finding pragmatic solutions to the threat raised by emerging technology.

Widely honored for his research, Fink has received the GSA’s George W. Beadle Medal, the International Gruber Genetics Prize, and the first honorary doctorate awarded by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He is also an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Medicine, and American Philosophical Society, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

David Page, director and member of Whitehead Institute and professor of biology at MIT, observes that, “Over the course of more than five decades, Gerry has been a leader in biomedical research, guided Whitehead through eleven years of growth and achievement, and—I’m both lucky and pleased to say—been an invaluable mentor, collaborator, and friend to me and our Institute colleagues. He is richly deserving of the Killian Award.”

Two other Founding Members of Whitehead have received the Killian Award: Robert Weinberg (1999-2000) and Rudolf Jaenisch (2009-2010). Former Whitehead Member Eric Lander won the award in 2016-2017.  In addition, two current members of the Whitehead Board of Directors have won the award: Phillip Sharp (1993-1994) and Robert Langer (1997-1998).


Written by Merrill Meadows

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