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03/22/2005 08:00:00

Caltech Chemical Biologist SpecializingIn Brain Chemistry Named HHMI Investigator

PASADENA, Calif.--California Institute of Technology chemical biologist Linda Hsieh-Wilson has been named one of this year's new Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. Hsieh-Wilson's research integrates chemistry and neurobiology to understand how the cells of the brain communicate with one another.

Hsieh-Wilson, an assistant professor of chemistry at Caltech, joins 42 other American researchers in the new coterie of HHMI Investigators. The prestigious grant is presented to researchers who have shown particularly high promise in their first four to 10 years as independent scientists.

"These scientists are on the rapidly rising slope of their careers and have made surprising discoveries in a short period of time," says Thomas R. Cech, the president of HHMI. "We have every reason to believe that they will use their creativity to extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge for many years to come."

For Hsieh-Wilson, a major focus of her research is to understand how the structure of carbohydrates and other molecules impacts the function of proteins in the brain. In so doing, she is breaking down boundaries between fields and extending an understanding of how the brain works at the molecular and even atomic level.

"The HHMI award gives us greater freedom and flexibility," says Hsieh-Wilson, who arrived at Caltech four and a half years ago. " We can take risks, explore new areas, and take our science to the next level."

The HHMI's biography of Hsieh-Wilson sums up her current research as the quest to discover how "the right chemistry keeps the brain working properly." To investigate the role of carbohydrates on proteins, for example, she has created new chemical tools for studying a chemical process known as glycosylation, which is thought to be important for functions such as learning, memory, and motor control. Hsieh-Wilson's research also has an important medical component in that she is studying how glycosylation may have a role in the molecular basis of diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cancer.

Hsieh-Wilson is also the winner of an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, a Beckman Young Investigator Award, and a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Development (CAREER) Program award. A graduate of Yale with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, she earned her doctorate in bioorganic chemistry at UC Berkeley before joining Rockefeller University to do research in neurobiology.

The election of Hsieh-Wilson and Dianne Newman, Caltech's other new HHMI Investigator, brings the total number of HHMI Investigators in residence on campus to nine.

A nonprofit medical research organization, HHMI was established in 1953 by the aviator-industrialist Howard Hughes. The Institute, headquartered in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is one of the largest philanthropies in the world, with an endowment of $12.8 billion at the close of its 2004 fiscal year. HHMI spent $573 million in support of biomedical research and $80 million for support of a variety of science education and other grants programs in fiscal 2004.




Written by Robert Tindol