Thomas Cech, a molecular biologist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1989 for research on RNA's enzyme activity, will be the next president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the largest private funder of medical research in the United States. The chair of HHMI's board of trustees, Hanna Gray, announced today that Cech had accepted the presidency, adding that he will bring "creative leadership" and a special interest in education to HHMI.
Cech succeeds Purnell Choppin, who announced his plans to retire last year. Choppin has presided over HHMI since 1987--a period during which HHMI's portfolio grew to more than $11 billion.
Cech, 51, has been a Hughes-funded investigator for more than a decade and currently heads a research team at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a deputy editor of Science, and a member of visiting boards of major labs such as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cech says he will have to give up many outside activities, but not bench science: He plans to spend 3 weeks of every month at HHMI in Maryland and fly back to Colorado every fourth week to be with his research team.
Despite the strain of travel, Cech says, becoming president of HHMI will be a "dream job": He gets to steer one of the world's largest research organizations without having to do any fund-raising. Although he recognizes that there may be a "perceived conflict" in accepting HHMI research support while serving as the institute's president, he notes that other research leaders--including several at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)--have overcome the same problem without controversy.
When NIH director Harold Varmus learned of Cech's appointment today, he said he was "extremely pleased" and encouraged about the possibilities for expanding cooperation between HHMI and NIH. Varmus says he already feels close to Cech because they won their Nobel Prizes in the same year. Cech, he adds, is "informal, very engaging, has a good sense of humor," and is likely to be a "very strong leader for the scientific community."