Salk professors awarded chair appointments
Leading philanthropists recognize outstanding scientists with endowed faculty chairs
It was a night of celebration on August 23, as scientists, colleagues and patrons gathered at Salk to honor four faculty members who were appointed to endowed chairs. Professors E. J. Chichilnisky, Jan Karlseder, Greg Lemke and Kuo-Fen Lee were acknowledged for their scientific excellence and contributions to biological research at the board of trustees reception and chair recognition ceremony.
The Ralph S. and Becky O'Connor Chair, the Donald and Darlene Shiley Chair and the Françoise Gilot-Salk Chair were all created as part of the Joan Klein Jacobs and Irwin Mark Jacobs Senior Scientist Endowed Chair Challenge. In 2008, the Jacobses created a challenge grant to encourage donors to establish endowed chairs for senior scientists. For every $2 million that a donor contributes toward an endowed chair at the Institute, Joan and Irwin Jacobs add $1 million to achieve the $3 million funding level required to fully endow a chair for a Salk senior scientist. To date, 15 chairs have been established.
In addition to the challenge grant chairs, Kou-Fen Lee was appointed to the Helen McLoraine Chair in Molecular Neurobiology.
"This is a well-deserved honor for these exceptional investigators," said Salk president William R. Brody. "Endowed chairs enable scientists to explore the most creative and innovative science for which they are known. It is impossible to overstate the gratitude we feel toward the donors of the newly established chairs. We are celebrating a legacy that crosses generations and a good that will live on in perpetuity."
E. J. Chichilnisky, professor in the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory, was named the inaugural holder of the Ralph S. and Becky O'Connor Chair. Ralph O'Connor, who serves on the Salk board of trustees, and his wife, Becky, are generous supporters of the Institute and created the chair as an "investment that has the potential for maximum impact on human health."
Chichilnisky is working on deciphering how the retina, the tissue lining the back of the eye, encodes visual information so the brain can use it to produce visual experience. Employing a microscopic electrode array to record the activity of retinal ganglion cells—each of which views the world only through a small, jagged window called a receptive field—he was able to show that receptive fields fit together like pieces of a puzzle, preventing blind spots and excessive overlap that could blur our perception of the world. Most recently, he traced, for the first time, the neuronal circuitry that connects individual photoreceptors with retinal ganglion cells, shedding light on the neural code used by the retina to relay color information to the brain.
Jan Karlseder, professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, was appointed the inaugural holder of the Donald and Darlene Shiley Chair. Darlene Shiley is vice chair of the Salk board of trustees and a dedicated philanthropist who, along with her late husband, Donald, is well known for donating time and support to many organizations throughout San Diego. The chair will provide funding for the interdisciplinary and groundbreaking research that takes place at the Salk.
Karlseder's research centers on understanding the functions of telomeres, the protective protein-DNA complexes at the ends of chromosomes. Various diseases associated with aging, including cancer and a number of premature aging syndromes, are characterized by critically short or otherwise non-functional telomeres. Karlseder and his team explore how cells keep tabs on their telomeres and, most importantly, prevent catastrophic meltdowns. Their studies uncovered how telomeres signal the approach of cell death, and they were the first to show that progressive telomere shortening plays a key role in cellular aging by changing the way chromosomes entwine with histones, so-called epigenetic changes. Karlseder believes that a better understanding of the interplay between telomeres and cellular functions that play a key role in the aging process may begin to explain why some individuals have long, healthy lives; at the same time it may also lead to new therapies to mitigate age-related diseases.
Greg Lemke was named the inaugural holder of the Françoise Gilot-Salk Chair, which was established by Ferring Pharmaceuticals, a global specialty biopharmaceuticals company, in honor of Françoise Gilot-Salk—the internationally acclaimed artist and widow of Jonas Salk.
Lemke, a professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, is renowned for his distinguished contributions to understanding the roles that receptor tyrosine kinase (RTK) pathways play in regulating nervous system development and immune system function. The endowment will help support his research into the role that TAM receptors play in immune regulation. These receptors, which were discovered in his lab, are central inhibitors of the innate immune response to bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Diminished activity of the TAM system is associated with systemic lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and other human inflammatory syndromes, while TAM activation facilitates viral infection. He is currently investigating agents that either activate or inhibit TAM receptor signaling to develop new therapeutic approaches to the treatment of human autoimmune diseases and viral infections.
The Helen McLoraine Chair in Molecular Neurobiology, awarded to Kuo-Fen Lee, a professor in the Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology, was created through the estate of Helen McLoraine to support neurobiological research. Her commitment to science and education as a passionate supporter and friend of the Salk Institute led her to establish endowments to ensure future generations of Salk scientists the needed resources to continue their research.
Lee studies the genes and molecules that guide brain cell development, using gene-targeting technology to observe the physiological effects of specific genes on nervous system function. His lab focuses on how disruptions in the development and maintenance of nerve cells and their supporting cells can contribute to neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease; neuroendocrine diseases, such as anxiety; and neuromuscular diseases. His research will help accelerate discovery of how abnormalities occur in the way brain cells communicate with each other, with the aim of developing new therapies that prevent brain cell death and can treat many disorders.