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Vol. LXIII, No. 1
January 7, 2011

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Whitmarsh Retires from NIGMS
Dr. John Whitmarsh

More than 50 years have passed since Dr. John Whitmarsh started his first job sweeping floors and packing weed and insect poisons in a nursery supply warehouse in his hometown of San Diego. “That was a different time—my grandfather told me he got me a job even though I hadn’t asked for one. I didn’t know you could quit a job—I just did what I was told,” he joked. He has held a variety of positions since then, the most recent as special assistant to the NIGMS director. He recently marked another career change—after 8 years at NIGMS, he retired.

Whitmarsh began his professional career in 1980 as an assistant professor of biology at Queens University in Ontario, Canada. The next year, he joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) faculty, where he worked in the plant biology and biochemistry departments for 21 years. During that time, he was a visiting professor at the Max-Volmer Institute for Biophysics and Physical Chemistry in Berlin, Germany, from 1989-1990. Whitmarsh served as director of the UIUC Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology from 2000 to 2002, when he joined NIGMS.

Whitmarsh held several positions at NIGMS, including program director in the Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics, assistant and acting director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and acting director of the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation. In 2007, he assumed the special assistant role he held until retirement.

“John has been an outstanding resource for NIGMS and NIH, leading programs and administrative efforts with great care and diligence,” said Dr. Karin Remington, director of the NIGMS Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. “He did this in a way that engendered the confidence and respect of his colleagues, and he aimed first and foremost for the success of the scientific endeavor and public trust at hand. In everything I’ve seen him undertake, his heightened sense of professionalism and dedication was clear.”

While at NIGMS, Whitmarsh spearheaded many projects including the NIH Roadmap’s National Centers for Biomedical Computing Initiative, the Joint NSF/NIGMS Mathematical Biology Initiative and the NIGMS Biomedical Workforce Initiative. He was also responsible for enhancing an NIGMS program that provided grantees with supplemental funding to support individuals from groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.

“John completed his service as acting director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology just at a time when we were re-thinking some of our diversity programs, including the diversity supplement program. He reshaped that program, demonstrating tremendous leadership. He also contributed his scholarship and critical thinking to many other issues,” said Dr. Jeremy Berg, NIGMS director.

Dr. Clifton Poodry, director of the NIGMS Division of Minority Opportunities in Research, added, “John always brought a fresh perspective to our discussions about our programs—and often helped us to understand the issues better. He has my deep respect and gratitude.”

Whitmarsh studied physics as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. He conducted postdoctoral research at Purdue University and the Center for Nuclear Studies in Gif-sur-Yvette, France. He received many honors and awards while at NIGMS, including two NIH Director’s Awards.

“I’ve enjoyed my career at NIGMS,” said Whitmarsh. “There’s a family atmosphere here and the management structure enables people to make changes and to express themselves. I will really miss my friends here.”

Though his federal career may have come to an end, Whitmarsh attests that his working days are not over. “I plan to continue working—hopefully someplace where I can combine my research and administrative experience. I would like to be able to contribute to the scientific workforce and/or training,” he said.

In addition to a new career, Whitmarsh will adapt to a new life in Los Angeles. He plans to spend more time with his children and grandchildren—the reason for his address change. “I’ve already made a deal with my kids that I will be ‘Papa Au Pair’ one day a week,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

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