August 10, 2012

Salk professors awarded chair appointments

Leading philanthropists recognize outstanding scientists with endowed faculty chairs

Salk News

Salk professors awarded chair appointments

Leading philanthropists recognize outstanding scientists with endowed faculty chairs

LA JOLLA, CA—The Salk Institute is pleased to announce that professors E.J. Chichilnisky, Jan Karlseder, and Kuo-Fen Lee have each been selected as the recipient of an endowed chair to honor their consistent scientific excellence and support their biological research.

“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.”

The Ralph S. and Becky O’Connor Chair and the Donald and Darlene Shiley Chair were both created as part of the Joan Klein Jacobs and Irwin Mark Jacobs Senior Scientist Endowed Chair Challenge. In 2008, Dr. and Mrs. Jacobs created a challenge grant for 15 chairs 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 will add $1 million to achieve the $3 million funding level required to fully endow a chair for a Salk senior scientist. To date, 13 chairs have been established.

E.J. Chichilnisky, professor in the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory, was chosen as 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. Supporting extraordinary science is most important to the future of our grandchildren and their children.”

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 was able to trace 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 the Vice Chair on 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. “We must support science and technology so our loved ones will have a chance at living in a world where there are successful therapies and treatments for the many troubling diseases facing us today,” said Mrs. Shiley.

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 and at the same time also lead to new therapies to mitigate age-related diseases.

The Helen McLoraine Chair in Molecular Neurobiology awarded to Kuo-Fen Lee, 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 that would ensure future generations of Salk scientists had the needed resources to continue their research.

Kuo-Fen 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 diseases, 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 to develop new therapies that prevent brain cell death and treat many disorders.

About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world’s preeminent basic research institutions, where internationally renowned faculty probe fundamental life science questions in a unique, collaborative, and creative environment. Focused both on discovery and on mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and infectious diseases by studying neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology, and related disciplines.

Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, M.D., the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.

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