‘Iowa Values’ for Mass. Hall?

Cech ‘a good wholesome guy who happens to be a genius’

This is the fourth article in a continuing series.
Part 1: Provost Considered for Top Post
Part 2: Will These Cowboy Boots March West?
Part 3: Deft Historian May Be Harvard's Future

CORRECTION APPENDED

Lawrence H. Summers presented a “hypothesis” about the genetic code of women and lost his job. Thomas R. Cech presented a hypothesis about the genetic code of a tiny protozoan and won a Nobel Prize.

Now, Cech’s pioneering biochemical research—and his widely praised management skills—may carry him into Summers’ old post. Two individuals familiar with the activities of the Harvard presidential search committee have told The Crimson that Cech, 59, is among the handful of candidates being most seriously considered.

As Harvard looks for a leader to build a science-centered campus in Allston that brings together experts from several fields, Cech has one item on his resume that none of his rivals can match: he already has created a world-class center for interdisciplinary bioscience research.

With influential backers like former Princeton President William G. Bowen and former Harvard Corporation member Hanna H. Gray, the personable chemist may be asked to pull off the task again.

THE BILLIONAIRE AND THE BIOCHEMIST

If Harvard decides on Cech as its leader, it will have to lure the Nobel laureate away from a plum post atop the nation’s fourth-richest private research center, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Hughes, a billionaire movie producer, aviator, and businessman, announced in 1953 that he would devote the wealth of his aircraft manufacturing firm to a scientific institute probing “the genesis of life itself.”

Hughes died in 1976 and, nine years later, the institute sold its shares of Hughes Aircraft Company to General Motors for $5 billion.

In 2000, the institute installed Cech as its third full-time president, and he has devoted the past seven years to spending and investing the organization’s vast riches.

HHMI’s endowment now totals $14.8 billion—behind only Harvard, Yale, and Stanford among academic institutions. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

That bulging bank account allows HHMI’s 300 investigators to pursue their research without worrying about outside grant money.

Most of the investigators—including well over a dozen at Harvard—retain their academic posts at their home universities while working off Hughes’ largess.

But Cech wanted the world’s leading bioscentists to exchange ideas in a central location. After he was named president of HHMI, Cech and two other institute administrators met over a meal at a restaurant in Boulder, where the University of Colorado—the school at which Cech has spent almost all of his professional life—is located. According to a press release from the institute, Cech and the administrators—scribbling on the back of a napkin—sketched a preliminary blueprint for a massive bioscience complex.

Two years later, Cech publicly announced a $500 million plan to build a “distinctive, exciting, collaborative place for chemists, physicists, computer scientists, and engineers to share their expertise and invent new technologies that will reshape biomedical research.”

The center, Janelia Farm, was Cech’s “dream project,” says Alexey Wolfson, a biochemical researcher at Colorado whose lab is next to Cech’s.

Janelia, situated 30 miles northwest of Washington along the Potomac River in Virginia, hosts laboratory buildings, conference space, apartments for visiting scientists, and a hotel.

At 689 acres, the complex is almost twice the size of Harvard’s Allston property.

“There is nothing quite like Janelia Farm anywhere in the world,” says David R. Liu ’94, an HHMI investigator and a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard.

The project came about in part because of Cech’s belief in the importance of cross-disciplinary work.

“Technology and biology really need to be working more shoulder-to-shoulder,” Cech said in a 2004 interview posted on the Nobel Prize Web site. The problem with universities, Cech said, is that people “who need to really talk to each other” often find themselves “in separate places.”

Cech’s words sound strikingly similar to those of a June 2006 statement from Harvard describing the first science building in Allston as a place “where scientists can work side by side sharing findings and approaches that may apply to different organ systems.”

There are many more parallels between Allston and the Janelia Farm campus, says Connie Cepko, an HHMI investigator and a professor of genetics at Harvard. The construction of Janelia Farm, like Allston, required negotiating with neighbors and maneuvering through the zoning process.

Cech “loves to build things,” says Bruce Eaton, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Colorado.

And he may have the opportunity—if he shifts his base from the Potomac to the Charles.

MAN FROM THE MIDWEST

Cech’s interest in building a collaborative research center has roots in his postdoctoral years here in Cambridge. In an autobiography posted on the Nobel Web site, he writes about how he and his biochemist wife Carol “enjoyed being part of the interactive scientific scene at MIT,” where he worked in the mid-1970s.

His MIT years marked a rare Eastern Seaboard stint for a man who, until 2000, spent most of his life west of the Mississippi.

Cech (pronounced CHECK) was born in 1947 in Chicago to a Czech-American family. He grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, and attended Grinnell College nearby.

The Hawkeye State left its imprint on Cech—he still has “Iowa values,” says Eaton. “He’s a good wholesome guy who happens to be a genius.”

At Grinnell, Cech majored in chemistry, but he describes an undergraduate experience steeped in the liberal arts. “I was to derive as much enjoyment studying Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, and Constitutional History as Chemistry,” he writes in his Nobel autobiography.

That’s not to say his work in the lab wasn’t fruitful. He has recounted meeting a Grinnell co-ed, Carol Martinson, “over the melting point apparatus in a make-up Organic Chemistry lab.” They would go on to marry and have two daughters.

His ties to Grinnell have remained strong. Since 1998, he has served as a trustee of the college, a school whose student body is just 1/13 the size of Harvard’s.

But his academic career soon took him outside of Iowa to the University of California, Berkeley, where both he and his wife earned their doctorates.

In 1975, the couple moved east—with Cech taking a postdoctoral position at MIT and his wife working at Harvard. Her tie to the University is Cech’s only crimson connection.

If elected, Cech would be the first Harvard president since 1672 without a degree from the University. But in the current search, two other oft-mentioned candidates—Stanford Provost John W. Etchemendy and University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor Alison F. Richard—also lack strong Harvard ties. Etchemendy has no connections, and Richard’s only tie is a daughter who graduated from the College.

The Cech couple’s Cambridge stint would be brief. In 1978, they moved back west after Cech accepted an assistant professorship at Colorado. He has remained on faculty ever since.

AN IDEA IS HATCHED

Cech was still a newly minted professor when he revealed a finding that would revolutionize the field of biochemistry.

In his lab, Cech examined a one-cell organism to study strands of ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Specifically, he investigated RNA splicing, in which cells convert long RNA strands into shorter ones, removing unneeded stretches. It was previously thought that enzymes catalyzed the cutting and reassembling process, and that RNA itself played a more passive role.

But Cech discovered a case in which the RNA catalyzed its own rearrangement. Since that discovery, scientists have found many other examples of the catalytic properties of RNA.

“He totally changed the central dogma as to what RNA was doing,” says Robert D. Kuchta, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Colorado.

“It’s like discovering that the ancestor of all chickens didn’t come out of an egg after all,” the Christian Science Monitor reported soon after Cech’s finding.

Cech won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery in 1989, splitting the award with Yale’s Sidney Altman.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in announcing the Nobel, noted that many chapters in science textbooks had to be revised as a result of the finding.

FROM THE LAB ROOM TO THE CLASSROOM

While the scientific world grappled with the implications of Cech’s finding, colleagues at Colorado and beyond say that Cech relished the opportunity to explain that discovery—and the basics of chemistry more generally—to undergraduates at the school.

“Many people are probably familiar with the fact that Tom Cech is a Nobel Prize winning scientist and a highly effective president of HHMI,” Liu says. “But they may not realize that he is also very passionate about educating students.”

He voluntarily taught introductory chemistry, and his teaching consistently received high rankings from students, according to Kuchta.

The class “is probably the most difficult course in chemistry to teach in terms of keeping the students interested,” Kuchta says. “It just shows his interest in education.”

While colleagues say that several schools—including Berkeley—sought to lure Cech from Colorado, the chemist chose to stay in his Boulder classroom.

And when Cech finally did head east to HHMI, he said that the opportunity to affect science education on a broader scale was one of his motives.

After accepting the HHMI presidency, Cech told the Rocky Mountain News, “I’ve wanted for quite a while to make an impact on science education. I’ve had a number of opportunities out of state to do that. This was the best such opportunity.”

During Cech’s tenure as president, HHMI has awarded millions of dollars in grant money to support undergraduate science education. The institute’s total investment in undergraduate science education tops $600 million.

In 2002, HHMI created the “million-dollar professor” program, in which 20 leading researchers received $1 million over four years to bring the creativity they had shown in the lab to the undergraduate classroom.

And after Hurricane Katrina, Cech asked all HHMI investigators to open their labs to students who were displaced from their normal education experiences, Liu says.

TRADING WHITE COATS FOR PINSTRIPES

Now, Cech may be asked to lead an institution that is recovering from a storm of a different sort.

Former chiefs of other colleges—including Gray, who led the University of Chicago before joining Harvard’s board, and former Princeton President Bowen—are telling search committee members that Cech would be the right man to head Harvard in the wake of the Summers-Faculty fight, according to an individual familiar with the conversations.

Gray, who stepped down from the Harvard Corporation in 2005, now chairs the trustee board at HHMI. Interim Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles is also a trustee there. Both declined to comment for this article.

So far, Cech has remained mum about his ambitions.

“If he wasn’t interested he would have turned it down quickly,” Kuchta says. “He doesn’t like to jerk people around.”

The Harvard presidency has attracted chemists in the past—most recently, James B. Conant ’13, who taught organic chemistry at the University before becoming the school’s chief in 1933.

While Cech has one of the most coveted science jobs in the world right now, he may want a more active role in education than HHMI allows, according to Eaton.

But the culture of Harvard is a far cry from the informal work environment of the labs where Cech has spent most of his career.

Cech had no suits when he came to HHMI, and now owns only two, jokes financier Garnett L. Keith, an HHMI trustee and Harvard Business School graduate.

“Who knows, maybe he wants a pin-striped suit late in life,” Keith says. “It will be his first one.”

—Staff writer Stephanie S. Garlow can be reached at sgarlow@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute boasted an endowment of nearly $16 billion in the 2006 fiscal year, according to an HHMI spokeswoman, placing it only behind Harvard and Yale in endowment size. The Jan. 19 news article " 'Iowa Values' for Mass. Hall?" reported the institute's endowment size in fiscal year 2005.