Howard Newman places his well-worn canvas bag on the floor and settles comfortably into a chair after what has been a long but productive week of board meetings at the Salk Institute.
Maryam Razavi Newman, his wife of 21 years, has accompanied him on the trip from New York to participate at a luncheon honoring Salk scientist Joanne Chory with an endowed chair.
The Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair is the first to grow out of the Jacobs Chair Challenge. Salk Board Chairman Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, pledged up to $10 million in a fundraising campaign intended to create 10 new permanent chairs in support of senior faculty members. For every $2 million contribution, the Jacobs will augment each gift with an additional $1 million.
Newman, a trustee since 2002 was the first to take up the challenge. "One of the things we wanted to do with this chair is to let the world know just how special Joanne and plant biology are at Salk," he says.
"Plus, when you have a laboratory that's preeminent in its field, a recognized world leader, you want to lead with it and focus on it. So we hope that, in this small way, we can bring some well deserved attention to a part of Salk that really appeals to us."
Newman is president and CEO of Pine Brook Road Partners, LLC, a private equity firm and has no formal background in science. But he quickly became fascinated by and comfortable with Salk's scientific research. The gregarious trustee was also quick to make Institute acquaintances.
"I remember Maryam and I were walking around Salk and we bumped into (scientist) Tony Hunter," Newman says. "We were talking and quickly realized that he and I were graduate students together at Christ's College at the University of Cambridge. It turns out we used to drink coffee and play chess together."
"As we went around meeting all the senior scientists, I was captivated by their curiosity-driven research. One of my mottos in my firm is that there's no such thing as an uninteresting fact. Salk buys into that. And once you understand what the scientists do, you just fall in love with it."
The Newmans were equally impressed by the investigators' passion for their work and their ability to explain it at just the right level – a level at which they could appreciate it, yet also learn enough to be further intrigued.
"They have that ability to carry a conversation that's a little bit beyond where you are comfortable walking so that you have to jog a little to keep up," Newman says. "It's wonderfully refreshing. You come away with your mind having been stretched, but in a very gentle way, which is really nice."
A psychotherapist by profession, Maryam Newman says she has a personal interest in the neurobiology laboratories, which are working toward understanding brain function as well as looking at the molecular basis of mental disorder.
"I'm waiting for researchers to come up with a molecular explanation for serious mental illness, " she says. "Perhaps their work will provide answers to free people from these life-destroying conditions."
"I believe research at Salk is pure science and the findings have applications to many other areas of research," she says. "If you don't have basic science, you don't have translational research."
The Newman Chair is hardly the first time the couple has contributed to the Institute. Members of the President's Club since 2002, they also made a generous contribution the following year to establish the Razavi Newman Center for Bioinformatics. The center provides a valuable service by collaborating with and assisting many Salk laboratories to create databases using advanced computational and statistical techniques.
As he grabs his bag to leave for his next business trip to Portland before heading home to Manhattan, Newman offers one last reason for his belief in research at the Salk Institute:
"Salk is simply a unique place. It attracts world-class scientists who work in a collaborative environment. That's what attracts us to it," he says. "It's a treasure that needs to be supported."