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Two Brilliant Genomics Careers Come to Tragic End

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Murdering his former boss and then taking his own life must have been the only answer that Matthew Huang, 38, could muster after spending nearly nine months devastated and distraught over what he considered an unjust firing; but it has left stunned friends and colleagues with countless questions.

According to police, on the night of February 27, Huang, who was fired last June from his job as director of bioinformatics and molecular biology at PPD Discovery, arrived at the Mountain View, Calif., home of former boss Tanya Holzmayer, 46, and murdered her with several shots from a .380-caliber pistol that had been legally purchased and registered to him. He then drove to Foster City, some 15 miles north, and called his wife, an employee of Applied Biosystems, to tell her that he had just killed his ex-boss and that he was en route to the bayfront, less than a half-mile from their home, to kill himself.

A passerby at the recreational trail by the bay alerted Foster City police, who were there after Huang’s wife reported the call, to the man’s prone body. Huang died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. “The Mountain View police department has definitely linked the homicide with the suicide,” says Foster City Captain Craig Courtin, adding that there is no doubt the gunman was Huang.

Holzmayer was the former vice president of functional genomics at PPD; she had just secured funding for a new company she planned to start, according to colleague Igor Roninson, who works in the molecular genetics department of the University of Illinois at Chicago. She previously worked at Ingenex and the University of Illinois, where she co-invented a functional gene-discovery tool later incorporated into PPD’s GSX platform.

Holzmayer is survived by her son; besides his wife, Huang leaves behind a daughter.

Huang, who began his genomics career in Lee Hood’s lab at the University of Washington and later worked for DuPont and DoubleTwist, seemingly never came to terms with his contested dismissal from PPD. According to an e-mail he sent last summer to an editor of this magazine, Huang got a letter from PPD accusing him of “violating company policy” by speaking with the press (he was quoted in reference to the Beijing Genomics Institute in the April 2001 issue of GT) and by holding a position at the Chinese center. He argued that since he had only spoken with the magazine about BGI, and not about PPD, he had not violated the press policy. He also contended that PPD had known all along about his pro bono position at BGI. Indeed, Huang’s biography on the company website included his appointment as co-director of the institute, though this page was removed from the Web almost immediately upon Huang’s forced departure.

“I am still in shock and disbelief,” Huang wrote last June. “Meanwhile I am trying hard to get on with my life.” Those grieving for him and Holzmayer will likely never know for certain why he couldn’t.

— Meredith Salisbury

 

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