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Salk scientists honored with endowed chairs

endowed chairs

Geoffrey M. Wahl, Martyn Goulding and Joseph R. Ecker

At a special ceremony at the Institute on March 29, facult y members Geoffrey M. Wahl, Martyn Goulding and Joseph R. Ecker were each honored as recipients of endowed chairs, in recognition of their significant scientific accomplishments.

"Salk discoveries are transforming our understanding of human health, and we are deeply grateful to our generous donors," said William R. Brody, Salk Institute president, as he acknowledged each of the investigators at the ceremony. "Establishing the chairs is an outstanding way to support researchers who are at the forefront of their fields. It honors the excellence of these remarkable scientists who have made preeminent contributions to scientific discovery."

In 2008, Irwin Jacobs, chairman of the Salk board of trustees, and his wife, Joan, made a $10 million challenge grant to encourage donors to establish ten 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. Thanks to the enthusiastic response to the chair challenge, the Jacobses added five more endowed chairs to the challenge, for a total of 15. To date, 13 have been established. The endowments provide essential funds to support the leading-edge science being done at the Institute.

Geoffrey M. Wahl, professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory, was named the inaugural holder of the Daniel and Martina Lewis Chair. The Lewises, Salk supporters since 2002 and International Council members, created the chair to help future generations benefit from the basic research conducted at the Institute.

Wahl seeks to determine how cancers originate and progress and why tumors become resistant to even the most powerful anti-cancer drugs. His goal is to translate the knowledge and understanding gained from basic research into the development of new treatment strategies to more effectively manage all types of cancer. His lab has uncovered key mechanisms that control the stability of the genetic material in cancer cells, and most recently has uncovered strong links between genetic pathways expressed in breast stem cells generated in the embryo and some of the most lethal human breast cancers. This work holds promise for developing new diagnostic and prognostic strategies and for developing new individualized treatment methods.

The Wahl lab has developed numerous technologies widely used in molecular and cellular biology, and Wahl was lead author of a "citation classic," concerning methods of DNA detection that were among the most widely cited in molecular biology. Wahl is an ardent advocate for increased funding of biomedical research as a mission that both saves lives and produces a substantial return on investment.

Martyn Goulding was appointed holder of the Frederick W. and Joanna J. Mitchell Chair, created through the Mitchell estate in memory of their daughter, Marian, to support research in connection with birth defects and children's diseases.

Goulding, professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, studies the early development of the nervous system and how it functions, focusing on defining the genetic program that generates different interneuron cell types in the embryonic spinal cord. His lab has explored how these interneurons not only play a critical role in relaying sensory information from the surface of our body to the brain, but are also important for locomotion and posture. This research could eventually contribute to new therapies for spinal cord injuries and movement disorders associated with aging and diseases affecting children.

Goulding pioneered the use of mouse genetics in combination with classical electrophysiological studies to reveal the identity and assign specific functions to neural networks in the spinal cord. His work led to a paradigm shift in spinal cord physiology and changed the way scientists study neural circuits in the spinal cord.

Joseph Ecker, professor in the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and director of the Genomic Analysis Laboratory, was awarded the Salk International Council Chair in Genetics, which was created in 1997 and has provided critical resources to further the understanding of genetic contributions to human health. Ecker is one of the world's leading authorities on the molecular biology and genetics of plants and is internationally recognized for his pioneering contributions to plant genomics. He was a principal investigator in the multinational project that sequenced the genome of Arabidopsis thaliana, a modest weed that has become a model organism for the study of plant genetics and the first plant whose genome was sequenced, an achievement expected to have widespread implications for agriculture and perhaps human medicine as well. Ecker also led the groundbreaking research that produced the first detailed map of the human epigenome using two human cell types.

Ecker is widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on how the gaseous hormone ethylene regulates a variety of basic plant processes. For agriculture, ethylene gas is a vital chemical messenger important for such processes as fruit ripening and how plants respond to pathogenic organisms. Ecker's research has yielded essential insights into the mechanisms of plant growth control and led to the development of new technologies that delay fruit ripening and disease processes.