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NIGMS Director Cassman To Leave for California

By Alisa Zapp Machalek

On the Front Page...

After 27 years at NIGMS — the last 5 as its director — Dr. Marvin Cassman will leave in early May to become the first director of "QB3," the California-based Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research.

"This is an exciting opportunity that's one of my major interests — developing connections between the physical sciences and biology," says Cassman.


True to his interest in these areas, Cassman created the NIGMS Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology in 2001. This center supports research and training in areas that join biology with the computer sciences, engineering, math and physics.

He expects that such computer-based approaches will intensify in coming years. "There will be more involvement of bioinformatics, modeling and simulation, and database development. We are only at the beginning of this trend."

Dr. Marvin Cassman

Cassman also recognized that solving the most challenging — and interesting — problems in biology often requires wide-ranging scientific expertise. As NIGMS director, he sought to promote such interdisciplinary, multi-institutional approaches through a number of initiatives, including structural genomics, pharmacogenetics, and large-scale collaborations known as "glue" grants.

In their own right, these programs are significant to the scientific community, says Dr. Norka Ruiz Bravo, director of the NIGMS Division of Extramural Activities. "But they are particularly noteworthy because they exemplify the 'new' [collaborative] approach to science — multidisciplinary and multi-institutional. Marvin astutely recognized the value of this approach very early and instituted far-reaching programs that took full advantage of it."

"Such thought and insight and action, enabling the scientific community to realize important progress in cutting-edge areas, have [consistently] characterized Marvin's work," says Dr. Michael Rogers, director of the NIGMS Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry. He points to Cassman's launch, years before becoming NIGMS director, of a program to determine the molecular structures of AIDS-related proteins. The program advanced the methodology of structure-based drug design; structures determined under the program led directly to one new anti-AIDS drug and paved the way for others.

Cassman also initiated the NIGMS Shared Instrumentation Program that funded major equipment used by several biomedical researchers. This program became a model for similar efforts at NIH and other government agencies.

He is also recognized for inspiring his colleagues. "Marvin has a knack for getting the best out of people. He creates an atmosphere in which people come up with good ideas and then encourages them to turn these ideas into reality," says Dr. Judith Greenberg, director of the NIGMS Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology. Greenberg will serve as acting director of the institute after Cassman's departure.

Cassman's NIH career was spent entirely at NIGMS. He began in 1975 as a health scientist administrator, then founded and directed the NIGMS program in biophysics and physiological sciences, rose to deputy director, and finally became director of the institute in August 1996.

He is very fond of the Washington, D.C., area and says there are just a few places for which he would leave it. San Francisco is one of them. "I like the city, I like the environment and I look forward to interacting with the stellar group of scientists at QB3. It's a very stimulating atmosphere in science. There is also the opera, the symphony, hiking — all sorts of things to do."

As he leaves Bethesda, Cassman says he will miss "the people who work here, but also the friends we've made." He also looks forward to rejoining other friends. "Both me and my wife lived [in San Francisco] many years ago and we still have friends there."

QB3 is a consortium of University of California schools in San Francisco, Berkeley and Santa Cruz. Its headquarters are at UCSF's new Mission Bay campus, now under construction on San Francisco's eastern waterfront. Established in December 2000, the institute focuses on areas such as bioengineering, structural biology, bioinformatics and the analysis of complex biological systems.

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