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Astrophysicist shifts gaze to genomics


It was just a move across town, a couple of miles in all. But when Joseph Lehar left the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA) in Cambridge, Mass., last fall to become a scientist at the Whitehead Institute, he entered a new world. In his 15 years as an astrophysicist, Lehar had compiled an impressive resume: a PhD in physics from MIT, a post-doc at the University of Cambridge, and a six-year stint as a researcher at the CFA, where he became an expert in the search for gravitational lenses — concentrations of mass in space that distort images of objects (like galaxies) behind them by bending light.

Yet in his search for new opportunities, Lehar saw more room for growth in genomics than in the more established realm of astrophysics. He also found an open-minded boss in Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead’s Center for Genomic Research, willing to take a chance on someone who knew almost nothing about biology.

After less than a year in the genomics world, Lehar is picking up the lingo and feeling more confident at conferences. Lander has given him time to explore and learn, but Lehar is now settling into a few research projects. He is applying his statistical skills toward the problem of comparing sequences in human and mouse genomes. He’s also involved in several gene expression efforts, devising new analytical tools for identifying genetic markers related to cancer, diabetes, and various brain disorders.

“I have been able to make some contributions, though nothing earth-shattering so far,” he says. “If nothing else, I bring a fresh perspective to this work, which is something that Eric is looking for.”

— Steve Nadis


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