USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Spotlight on X-STEM Speaker Dr. Robert Tjian

X-STEM – presented by Northrop Grumman Foundation and MedImmune – is an Extreme STEM symposium for elementary through high school students featuring interactive presentations by an exclusive group of visionaries who aim to empower and inspire kids about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). These top STEM role models and industry leaders are sure to ignite your students’ curiosity through storytelling and live demonstrations.

Our spotlight on our X-STEM Speakers continues with Biochemist Dr. Robert Tjian from Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

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Ask colleagues about biochemist Robert Tjian and the qualities that best define him, and you will most likely be told such accolades as: “A distinguished, first-rate scientist… a person of impeccable talent and taste in science who commands a great breadth of understanding across the life sciences… a highly productive scientist but also a committed teacher and mentor of young scientists.”

These characteristics are among the traits that have molded Robert throughout his prominent career as a researcher and professor, and led to his appointment in 2008 as president of the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) — one of the world’s largest philanthropies, and an organization which plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the United States.

“This is the most interesting job for a scientist in the nation – if not the world – because of its impact on research in the life sciences,” says Robert of his job at HHMI. “I feel a sense of responsibility after more than 20 years as an investigator with HHMI. It is a great opportunity to give back in a significant way.”

The Institute, a non-profit medical research organization with an endowment of more than $17.5 billion, has over the past two decades made investments of more than $8.3 billion for the support, training and education of the nation’s most creative and promising scientists.

Before assuming his position as president of HHMI in 2009, he was a distinguished professor and researcher of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he had also served as an HHMI investigator since 1987, carrying out groundbreaking science with his team at UC Berkeley as well as at HHMI’s prestigious Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia.

Specifically, Robert is widely known for his studies into how genetic information stored in DNA is copied (transcribed) into RNA, which directs the production of proteins inside cells that are essential to life. He devised a way to isolate the individual components of the cell involved in transcription and recreate this complex, highly regulated process in a test tube. Advances in technology have also enabled Tjian to purify rare sequence-specific transcription factors, which bind to DNA at specific sites and regulate the expression of genes, and to isolate the genes that encode these important transcription factors.

His work has provided new insights into the molecular mechanisms that underlie various human diseases and conditions, including Huntington’s disease, cancer, diabetes, and infertility.

Robert has also been actively involved in training a new generation of molecular biologists who are poised to answer new questions generated by today’s scientists. “It gives me great pride to have guided so many students into medical careers, and to watch my students and postdoctoral fellows develop into first-rate scientists,” says Robert.

In addition to spearheading HHMI’s formidable medical research initiatives as Institute president, he is also committed to advancing the Institute’s long commitment to science outreach to students. Says Robert: “HHMI is committed to funding education programs that excite students’ interest in science. We hope that these programs will shape the way students look at the world — whether they choose to pursue a career in science or not.”

Robert was born in Hong Kong, the youngest of nine children. His family fled China before the Communist Revolution and eventually settled in New Jersey. Known as a voracious consumer of scientific information and data, Tjian famously talked his way into the biochemistry laboratory of the late Daniel Koshland as a Berkeley undergraduate – even though he had never taken a single course in the subject.

Robert went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Berkeley in 1971 and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1976. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory with James Watson, he joined the Berkeley faculty in 1979 where he later assumed a variety of leadership roles, including serving as Director of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center, and the Faculty Director of the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences. He is a member of the National Academy of Science and has received many awards honoring his scientific contributions, including the Alfred P. Sloan Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. He was named California Scientist of the Year in 1994.

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