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Scientific Leader Robert Tjian Speaks at NIH Asian Heritage Event

By Eddy Ball
January 2009

Photo of Robert Tjian, Ph.D. sitting on a stool in a University of California, Berkeley laboratory
Tjian is shown in lab space at the University of California, Berkeley, following the announcement of a $40 million grant to fund the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences (Photo courtesy of Ben Ailes and the Office of Public Relations at the University of California, Berkeley)

NIEHS staff were part of the off-site audience as NIH videocast ( Exit NIEHS its 2009 Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month Observance Program held May 14 in Masur Auditorium on the Bethesda campus. The featured speaker was cell biologist Robert Tjian, Ph.D., who developed the theme of "Leadership in Science - Meeting the Challenges of a Changing World" with reflections on his role as a scientific leader of Asian origin and details of some of his latest findings, which offer new insights into the mechanisms of cell differentiation.

Tjian ( Exit NIEHS is the director of the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences ( Exit NIEHS at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a professor from 1987 to 2009, and since April, the president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) ( Exit NIEHS. Tjian has moved some of his lab to HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia and continues research in his lab at Berkeley.

The program, sponsored by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management (OEODM) and the NIH Asian American/Pacific Islander Employee Committee, opened with remarks by Lucie Chen, acting NIH Asian program manager. NIH Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman, M.D., then spoke of Tjian as a "role model for the kind of leadership we'd like to develop at NIH." As Gottesman explained, while people of Asian descent are well represented in the ranks of investigators at NIH, making up 24 percent of the total, they occupy only about 5 percent of leadership positions at the branch chief level and above.

Tjian reflected on his own journey from Hong Kong to South America as a child and later to southern New Jersey, where he attended high school. He noted that "when I first came to Berkeley [as a college student], I was probably the only Asian face in my class in biochemistry. Today, if you look at the class, it's probably 67 percent Asian."

Referring to his friend and colleague Steven Chu, Ph.D., the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy and a neighbor in Chevy Chase, Md., Tjian said that Chu is "emblematic" of "Asians of many different extractions making great strides in every aspect of American culture."

During the scientific portion of his talk, Tjian presented unpublished findings from experiments in the "highly, highly regulated process" of RNA polymerase transcription - the way cells read DNA, transcribe RNA and trigger the production of proteins. He has studied several cell types, including muscle, neuron, liver and embryonic stem cells, to characterize the signal activator complexes involved in activation.

As the head of HHMI, Tjian oversees the work of more than 350 investigators at 67 universities, medical schools and research organizations across the United States. Founded in 1953 by Howard Hughes, HHMI currently has an endowment of $17.5 billion and has spent more than $8.3 billion over the past two decades on research support, training and education for the nation's top and most promising scientists. Tjian said he is committed to expanding HHMI so it will "have a role internationally as well as nationally."

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