Tom Cech, former president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2000-2009), is an external science advisor for the Science Philanthropy Alliance. He received his B.A. degree in chemistry from Grinnell College in 1970 and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California Berkeley in 1975. Following postdoctoral research at MIT, he joined the faculty of the University of Colorado Boulder in 1978. Shortly thereafter, Cech and his research team discovered the first example where RNA performed biological catalysis, a function previously thought to be the exclusive domain of protein enzymes. For this discovery, Cech was awarded the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Subsequently, his research group discovered the catalytic subunit of telomerase, which replicates the very ends of human chromosomes, and the protein responsible for protecting the ends of chromosomes. These findings have provided the basis for much research in cancer and in premature aging of stem cells.
Deeply committed to education, Cech has taught general chemistry to several thousand college freshmen. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute, which brings computer scientists, engineers, and physicists together with biologists, and he also founded the Interdisciplinary Quantitative Biology graduate program. Cech’s awards include the Heineken Prize, the Canada Gairdner International Award, the Lasker Award, the National Medal of Science, and election to the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the European Molecular Biology Organization. He has received 17 honorary degrees from universities and colleges in the U.S., South America, and Europe.