Dr. Jon Lorsch assumes the helm of NIGMS.
Photo: Melinda Urbina
Cook, gardener and even tugboat captain are jobs that appeal to Dr. Jon Lorsch. As the new director of NIGMS, he could find himself carrying out all these functions—at least metaphorically. He wants to whip up new recipes for funding discoveries, grow emerging scientific areas and guide the $2.4 billion institute so that it’s well-positioned to meet the needs of science and society.
With more than 10 years of NIH grant support (see sidebar), Lorsch has used yeast to identify the mechanisms driving translation initiation, a major step in controlling how genes are expressed and, in turn, how protein molecules are made. He will continue this work at a lab housed in NICHD.
Lorsch is already an NICHD collaborator: When he started his own biochemistry lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1999, he sought out the genetics expertise of NICHD’s Drs. Alan Hinnebusch and Thomas Dever.
“Jon asked about collaborating, and I jumped at the opportunity,” recalled Hinnebusch, adding that the ongoing joint effort re-energized his own project. “Apart from everything he’s bringing to NIGMS, he’s going to be a great addition to the NIH intramural program because of his interdisciplinary approach to science.”
While at Hopkins, Lorsch also invested a lot of his time advising a wide range of students and teaching numerous classes, for which he received all the teaching awards bestowed by the medical school. Most recently, his popularity among medical and graduate students led to an invitation to give the school’s 2013 spring commencement address.
On a broader scale, he played a leading role in efforts to reform curricula for the medical and graduate schools to better match current knowledge and career opportunities. When the graduate school reform effort had to be discontinued due to different departments’ goals, Lorsch refined his ideas and, together with former Hopkins Medicine vice dean for education Dr. David Nichols, published an article in the journal Cell outlining a new model for graduate education in the life sciences. It has since inspired reform efforts at institutions around the world.
“Jon is willing to engage in creative, visionary thinking about the future,” said Nichols, adding, “a lot of people give up in the face of opposition or exhaustion, but Jon is never exhausted and keeps plowing on.”
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (l) and former NIGMS acting director Dr. Judith Greenberg join Lorsch for his swearing-in as NIGMS director.
Before he interviewed for the institute director job, Lorsch read the biography of former NIGMS director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein.
“Reading about her leadership was inspiring and influential in developing my thinking about NIGMS and how to lead it,” Lorsch explained, adding that she’d be incredibly proud of her mentee, Dr. Judith Greenberg, who has kept the institute on course and moving ahead as acting director for 2 years.
Going forward, Lorsch plans to start a discussion with the research community about the evolving scientific—and funding—landscape.
Without a crystal ball to predict what the next major breakthroughs will be, Lorsch wants to ensure that the NIGMS research portfolio maximizes the public’s investment in basic science by supporting an array of areas, a diverse biomedical workforce and curiosity-driven projects that often produce unexpected, innovative findings.
“These are challenging times in science and society and we need to make sure we’re as effective and efficient as possible,” he said.
As NIGMS director, Lorsch will draw on the same skills that make him an outstanding researcher and educator. In addition to gathering input from the NIH and extramural communities, he’ll create opportunities that let people—and their ideas—excel.
“One magical thing about Jon is his intuitive ability to pair people up in ways that work well,” said Dr. Sarah Mitchell, a former graduate student in Lorsch’s lab at Hopkins. “He has an innate understanding of what people are interested in and encourages them to pursue those interests.”
At times, Lorsch might try a joke, explaining, “If you can get people laughing together, you can get them working together.”
One of the first projects on his to-do list is initiating a new strategic planning process to examine core institute goals and new approaches for implementing them and evaluating their success.
In talking about his short- and long-term objectives as NIGMS director, he enthused, “I’m excited to get started.”
Ph.D. from Harvard University (biochemistry); advisor: Dr. Jack Szostak
Postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University (biochemistry); advisor: Dr. Daniel Herschlag
Joined Hopkins in 1999; became full professor in 2009
NIH funding from NIGMS, NIDDK, NIMH
Author of more than 60 research articles, book chapters, other papers
Editor/reviewer for numerous scientific journals
Grant review panel service including NIH’s Molecular Genetics A