Gehring, facing the camera, leans towards Fink, who is facing her

Whitehead Institute Member Mary Gehring (left) speaks with Founding Member Gerry Fink (right) at the event to celebrate the establishment of the David Baltimore Chair in Biomedical Research.


Erik Jacobs

Endowed chairs fuel pioneering Whitehead Institute science

September 22, 2023 was a special occasion at Whitehead Institute: Nearly 200 people joined to celebrate the establishment of the David Baltimore Chair in Biomedical Research, honoring the Institute’s Founding Director and one of the world’s most accomplished and respected scientists. The September event was a much-appreciated opportunity for many of his colleagues and former students to laud and engage with him again.

The event was also a celebration of future achievements, because the Chair’s endowment will help fund the consequential research being conducted by the Chair’s inaugural incumbent, Whitehead Institute Member Mary Gehring. Her fundamental studies on plant growth and development may ultimately enable scientists to engineer food crop plants that are both more nutritious than many current crops and resistant to climate change-driven stresses.

Endowed chairs are generally created through philanthropic gifts from individual donors, organizations, or groups of donors honoring a specific person. The chairs — of which the Institute currently has five — provide steady, predictable funding to support investigations in Members’ labs.

Powering transformation

“An endowed chair can be transformative for a lab,” says Whitehead Institute Member Iain Cheeseman, who — in addition to being a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — holds the Margaret and Herman Sokol Chair in Biomedical Research.

The Sokol Chair was named for two of Whitehead Institute’s earliest and staunchest supporters, who both served on Whitehead Institute’s board of directors in the 1980s. Subsequently, Margaret’s $4 million bequest gift created the Sokol Chair. Its purpose: to help a respected senior Member undertake new scientific challenges and develop novel research methods.

The Chair’s first incumbent — Whitehead Institute Founding Member and former director Gerald Fink — is renowned for his creative use of classical genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology to develop new methods and make an array of discoveries in gene regulation, mutation, recombination, and other areas of biology. When Cheeseman succeeded Fink in holding the Sokol Chair in 2020, his lab had long focused on the kinetochore, a structure that helps chromosomes segregate during cell division. His group identified many of the kinetochore’s molecular components and functioning — discoveries now helping scientists understand how chromosome segregation errors may drive disease.

“An endowed chair can be transformative for a lab,” says Whitehead Institute Member Iain Cheeseman.

The Sokol Chair’s funding enabled Cheeseman to pursue a different set of questions. “Today, most of our projects investigate how genetic information is interpreted to create the diverse protein products that drive cellular function,” he explains. “We’re exploring how much proteins change under varying conditions and how protein properties are controlled in those changing circumstances. The new work could yield significant knowledge about the cellular mechanisms involved in cancer, aging, and fertility.

“That shift required investment in new capacities. For example, we’ve created mouse models to test how changes in protein function across an organism affect fertility or cancer formation. And we’ve begun using artificial intelligence to analyze results in a more fruitful way.”

The funding provided by the Sokol Chair is comparable to that from an NIH grant, Cheeseman notes. “But, unlike most grants, Sokol funding lets us shift gears, take intellectual risks, and seed new projects. The resulting proof-of-concept data then enables us to apply for external grants for the next stage of work.”

The bottom line: “The Chair lets us make exciting choices versus tough choices — and do cool science.”

Pursuing fresh and varied ideas

When Whitehead Institute Member and former director Susan L. Lindquist died in 2016, she left behind a legacy of both soaring scientific accomplishment and deep personal commitment. The National Medal Science recipient changed the way scientists viewed the role of cellular proteins in human health, evolution, and biomaterials. She also fostered the careers of women determined to fulfill their potential as scientists and, in that way, immeasurably enriched biological research.

To honor her legacy, the Johnson & Johnson company endowed the Susan Lindquist Chair for Women in Science at Whitehead Institute. Internationally renowned developmental biologist Yukiko Yamashita — Whitehead Institute Member, professor of biology at MIT, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator — is the Chair’s inaugural incumbent.

For Yamashita, a Macarthur Fellowship recipient well-known for pursuing novel questions and making eye-opening discoveries, the chair offers benefits both intangible and tangible. “It is a singular honor to hold a position named for Susan Lindquist,” Yamashita observes. “And, day-to-day, it creates a good kind of pressure to live up to her example as a scientist.”

On the tangible side, the funding that accompanies the chair provides important flexibility. “Our researchers are both talented and creative and have lots of compelling ideas,” she says. “Traditional lab funding doesn’t enable you to pursue those ideas, but funds from the Lindquist Chair let us follow up on the best of them.

“Moving to Whitehead Institute in 2020 was truly transformative for my science. The ongoing pursuit of fresh ideas is woven into the Institute’s culture. And the resources afforded by the Lindquist Chair enables us to be nimble in pursuing our brainstorms.”

“Our researchers are both talented and creative and have lots of compelling ideas,” Yamashita says. “Traditional lab funding doesn’t enable you to pursue those ideas, but funds from the Lindquist Chair let us follow up on the best of them."

The financial flexibility afforded by the Chair also helps Yamashita maximize her trainees’ experience. “I want each researcher in my lab to have their own distinct project,” she explains. “It’s challenging to write a funding application that includes studies on an array of subjects. But funds from the Lindquist Chair make it much easier to run projects for each of our trainees.”

Supporting research superstars, current and emerging

Landon Clay had a deep appreciation for world-class talent and was an avid supporter of the Institute’s mission. He served three terms on its board of directors and, with his wife Lavinia, was a generous philanthropic contributor. When he passed away, it was a natural step for his family to establish a pair of endowed faculty chairs at Whitehead Institute: the Landon T. Clay Professor of Biology Chair and the Landon T. Clay Career Development Chair.

Whitehead Institute Member Jonathan Weissman was named the inaugural holder of the Landon T. Clay Professor of Biology Chair. When he joined the Institute from University of California, San Francisco in 2020, Weissman was globally recognized for both scientific discovery and building innovative research tools. And he has continued to do truly transformative work, developing and learning from powerful new technologies. In the past year alone, Weissman and his colleagues have described a new method for tracing the family trees of human blood cells, and used tools developed in his lab to observe many of the key differences in how humans and chimps rely on certain genes.

“In my lab, we view the Clay Professorship as a kind of catalyst for the new projects we’re able to undertake,” says Weissman, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and a professor of biology at MIT. “It provides us the freedom to embark on new research directions well before they are mature enough to be competitive for more traditional funding sources, such as grants from the NIH. This is absolutely critical for our ability to be innovative.” 

At the time of Mary Gehring’s appointment in 2020 as the inaugural holder of the Clay Career Development Chair, she was viewed as both an emerging superstar in plant biology and a leader within the Whitehead Institute community. Her 2023 appointment to the Baltimore Chair, coupled with her promotion to professor of biology at MIT, made clear the respect with which she’s held as both an academic and scientific leader.

Gehring views her tenure in the Clay Career Development Chair with pride and gratitude. “I had the good fortune to meet Landon on my very first day at Whitehead Institute in 2011,” she recalls. “His curiosity, insight, and wide-ranging knowledge made that conversation absorbing — as was every subsequent discussion we had. It meant a lot to hold a position honoring him.”

The Chair provided Gehring’s lab with a new and stable source of funding. “It was hugely valuable,” she notes, “allowing us to launch projects of several years’ duration and recruit researchers for them.” Several of those projects have now received significant grants from the National Institutes of Health and multiple foundations.


Sebastian Lourido watches an experiment proceed on lab equipment

In 2023, Sebastian Lourido, Whitehead Institute Member and associate professor of biology at MIT, was named as Mary Gehring’s successor in the Landon T. Clay Career Development Chair. Lourido’s work holds great promise for exposing treatable vulnerabilities in the parasite Toxoplasma gondii — a single-celled parasite that infects an estimated 25% of the world’s population and can cause serious disease in pregnant women, infants, and immunocompromised patients. “Our work into fundamental aspects of host-pathogen interactions would not be able to advance as boldly or as quickly without the support we receive from the Chair,” says Lourido.


Looking at the multifaceted benefits of Whitehead Institute’s current group of endowed chairs, Iain Cheeseman observes, “This is such a great way to accomplish complementary goals: advancing scientific research with real impact, honoring notable individuals, and creating a legacy of recognition.”



Image credit for photo of Sebastian Lourido: Gretchen Ertl/Whitehead Institute



Communications and Public Affairs
Phone: 617-452-4630

Related News