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Incoming Whitehead Director Looks to Usher Institute Beyond Sequencing

NEW YORK, Aug. 9 – Susan Lindquist, the director-elect of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT, promises that when she takes over on Oct. 15 there won’t be any shakeup of the institute’s research priorities.

“I’m not going to make any major changes,” the University of Chicago protein chemist told GenomeWeb Wednesday.

But with the drama of the Human Genome Project sequencing now in the past, the institute made famous by Eric Lander—and by the now well-documented rivalry between the publicly and privately funded projects—must now look beyond genome sequencing as the institute’s main attraction. 

While stating that the Whitehead always had more to offer besides sequencing, Lindquist, appointed by the Whitehead Institute’s board of directors earlier this week to replace 10-year veteran Gerald Fink, said she hopes to build on the institute’s well-known strengths by continuing to integrate its sequencing expertise with other areas of biological research.

Already, Lander’s sequencing group is working with Fink to study pathogenic yeast strains, and Lindquist said she hopes to encourage similar interaction both within the institute and with researchers elsewhere.

“One of the major goals of our development campaign is going to be the next generation of proteomics and genomics beyond just sequencing,” she said. “That will really integrate a lot of Lander’s program with what other people are doing.”

Appointing Lindquist, who has studied the cellular mechanisms that govern protein conformation, seems to indicate a step more in the direction of protein research. In contrast, Fink, the outgoing director, and predecessor David Baltimore directed labs in the study of gene expression in yeast and recombinant DNA, respectively.

Lindquist, however, downplayed the significance of her research background in her appointment, saying that the institute is already quite diverse in the scope of its research. “[The Whitehead] is small and collegial,” she said, “but really very broad." Already, she added, at least half of the members of the institute "are at one level or another doing things that involve chips or proteomics or soon will be."

The collegial atmosphere also applies to how the institute makes important decisions, such as choosing research areas in which to hire new faculty, Lindquist said. However, armed with a discretionary director's fund, she will have greater influence in what research projects receive extra money or particular emphasis. Lindquist singled out the development of bioimaging techniques, emphasizing their application to structural biology, as one area that might receive greater attention.

Developing such techniques will require the 14 researchers at the institute to collaborate with scientists outside the biological disciplines, Lindquist said. “Everbody sees the key to the future—for not just the Whitehead but biology in general—is pushing new frontiers and new collaborative interactions between people who didn’t used to necessarily collaborate before, such as between physicists, engineers, and biologists,” she said.

In addition, Lindquist said she hoped the institute would take a greater role in partnering with industry and philanthropic foundations to find ways to quickly apply basic research to solve problems, particularly in medicine. The Whitehead Institute may not have been as proactive as other institutions in seeking out industry partners in the past, but hopefully that will change, she said. 

“I think it’s vital for the health of research that a lot of it be publicly funded—that I will say straight up from the very beginning," Lindquist said. "But I also feel it’s important that the research winds up being translated into doing good in people’s lives as quickly as possible, and that means collaborating with industry and also with foundations and philanthropic individuals.”

Ultimately, however, Lindquist took the job because it allowed her some degree of leadership, while still allowing her the freedom to pursue her scientific research. “I’ve just reached that level in my career where I’ve been asked to play more management roles at other institutions and I’m not interested in that, I really just want to go and do my science and be empowered to do my science.”

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