Tom Cech, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and distinguished University of Colorado Boulder professor, stepped down this month from his position as executive director of the campus’s BioFrontiers Institute, a role he held for more than a decade.
The institute serves as a hub for research, education and problem solving related to bioscience and human health topics that bring together CU faculty and students from disciplines such as biology, biochemistry, computer science, chemistry, physics and engineering.
“I was the executive director for 11 years,” said Cech, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery that RNA in living cells is not only a molecule of heredity but also can function as a catalyst. “I enjoyed every minute of it, and I think we accomplished a lot, but I wanted to return to doing more research and working with students.”
Cech’s ongoing research will focus on investigating cancer and telomerase, which he describes as “the molecular complex that builds out the ends of our chromosomes.”
He added: “When we discovered the catalytic subunit of telomerase in the 1990s, we had no idea that this would be the third most frequently mutated gene in all of cancer.”
The other area Cech’s team is investigating is epigenetics, the study of how modification of gene expression can result in changes to an organism.
“This is a big area in cancer research,” he said. “In fact, there are now approved drugs that are inhibitors of the complex that we study in our lab.”
Looking back at his time at the BioFrontiers Institute, Cech notes three accomplishments that are particularly important.
First, the institute was able to bring aboard “a fabulous group of computational bioscientists,” he said. “The genomics area, molecular medicine and precision medicine were areas that were becoming more and more important nationally. But Colorado had slipped and had forgotten to get on to that boat.”
The second major accomplishment was the formation of a graduate PhD Interdisciplinary Quantitative Biology program that bridges the gap between CU’s bioscience program and other disciplines such as engineering.
“The students have been wonderful and have gone off and done really great things,” Cech said.
Another coup for Cech during his tenure leading the institute was the development of a collaborative channel between the university and the bioscience industry.
“Academics tend to hide industrial opportunities from their students,” he said. “But here in Boulder we’ve switched that around, and we are very active in terms of promoting interactions between our students and people who’ve gone into industry.”
Cech’s successor as executive director at the BioFrontiers institute is distinguished professor and Cech-Leinwand Endowed Chair of Biochemistry Roy Parker.
“I think it is refreshing for any organization to have new leadership occasionally,” Cech said. “We were just delighted that Roy Parker was ready to take on this responsibility.”
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