May 28, 2008

Michelle Wang is first researcher on Ithaca campus to be named Hughes Institute Investigator

Biophysicist Michelle Wang has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator, an honor awarded for innovative and promising biological and biomedical research. An associate professor of physics and the leader of the Single Molecule Biophysics Lab, Wang is the first researcher on Cornell's Ithaca campus to receive the award.

Wang's salary and much of her research at Cornell will be supported by HHMI for five years, after which she will be reviewed for renewal. The award, which stipulates only that 75 percent of an investigator's time be devoted to direct biomedical research, is designed to foster originality and flexibility.

"This is going to be a dramatic change," said Wang, one of 56 scientists nationally chosen to receive the honor. "I have lots of ideas I want to explore, but [with typical project-related grants] you don't have the opportunity to explore ideas dramatically different than you proposed." At HHMI, she said, "they want you to take risks; they want you to go out and explore new things. This really allows you to think freely and be creative."

Wang is developing novel physical techniques to measure and manipulate the motions of individual molecules within cells, particularly surrounding DNA transcription and gene expression. Using a technique known as optical trapping, she recently demonstrated how helicase enzymes exert force on DNA strands, causing the double helix to unwind. Her laboratory also developed "optical angular trapping," which allows researchers to measure torque and angular orientation on a molecular scale.

"These days much of the progress in medicine comes from understanding the basic mechanisms of biology at a molecular level," said Saul Teukolsky, physics department chair and the Hans A. Bethe Professor of Physics and Astrophysics. "Michelle has shown how one can use techniques developed in physics to understand how DNA is put together."

Much of the credit for the recognition, Wang emphasized, goes to former and current students who contributed to her research. "I'm so proud. The award speaks very well of the accomplishments of my students."

HHMI employs about 300 investigators at universities, medical schools and research institutions nationwide. More than 100 have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences; 11 HHMI investigators have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

"These 56 scientists will bring new and innovative ways of thinking about biology to the HHMI community," said Thomas R. Cech, president of HHMI. "They are poised to advance scientific knowledge dramatically in the coming years, and we are committed to providing them with the freedom and flexibility to do so."

Shahin Rafii, the Arthur Belfer Professor of Genetic Medicine and director of the Ansary Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, was named an HHMI investigator in 2005. Rockefeller University researcher Michael E. O'Donnell received an HHMI investigatorship while on the WCMC faculty in 1993. Scott Emr, the Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 Director of Cornell's Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, was an HHMI investigator at the University of California-San Diego before coming to Cornell.