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NIH Record - 75th Anniversary - National Institutes of Health

NIGMS Mourns Longtime Division Director Lewis

Dr. Lewis

Dr. Catherine D. Lewis

Dr. Catherine D. Lewis, former director of the NIGMS Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics (CBB), died on July 12. 

Throughout her 34 years at NIH, she was widely recognized for her scientific foresight and leadership, including the early recognition of important emerging research opportunities in molecular biology, biophysics and microscopy.  

Lewis earned a B.S. in psychology from Columbia University, then an M.S. and Ph.D. in biochemistry from Princeton University. She joined NIH in 1983 as a staff fellow at NIDDK in the lab of Dr. Gary Felsenfeld, where she studied chromatin structure and the regulation of beta-globin gene expression during development.  

In 1989, Lewis moved to NIGMS as a program director in the Genetics Program Branch (which later became the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology), where she managed grants on cell nuclear structure and function and was instrumental in the development of programs focused on epigenetic regulation. 

Eight years later, Lewis became Biophysics Branch chief in CBB. In that role, she managed up to 400 grants, some of which led to breakthroughs such as the structure of the ribosome. She also reorganized the portfolios of the branch to focus on biological problems rather than on the specific methods for studying those problems. In addition, she initiated NIGMS programs focused on new single-molecule methods and nanotechnology. 

Lewis received NIH Director’s Awards for her work on the NIH Bioengineering Consortium, the NIH nanoscience working group and for participation in the Science Alliance Program, which seeks to improve the quality of science education in elementary schools.

In 2006, Lewis became acting, then permanent director of CBB, a position she held until her retirement in January. During this period, she oversaw changes in the direction of the NIGMS Protein Structure Initiative, promoted advances in high-resolution optical microscopy and cellular imaging and led efforts to support atomic resolution cryo-electron microscopy, including a new Common Fund initiative. 

“Cathy was very well liked by her colleagues. Why? She was self-effacing, encouraging, supportive, even-handed, tolerant and always available and willing to join in,” says acting CBB division director Dr. Peter Preusch.  

Over the years, Lewis was active in training other NIH extramural staff members and had served on numerous personnel search and process planning committees. 

“Cathy was not only a wonderful colleague, but first and foremost a truly dedicated mentor. She was generous with her time and her abilities; a rare blend of compassion and forthright honesty,” said NIGMS Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics and Computational Biology division director Dr. Susan Gregurick. “I think her impact will continue to have vibrations in many peoples’ careers.”

Lewis’s door was always open to all and her advice was constantly sought by colleagues, not only in her own division, but widely across NIGMS and NIH. “Cathy regarded and treated everyone as a colleague, a reflection of her respect and appreciation for individuals and their contributions,” said Cell Biology Branch chief Dr. Jim Deatherage.  

Lewis is survived by daughter Christine and son Jonathan Selzer and her partner Vince Cannistraro.

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