Huntington Willard named president and director of Marine Biological Laboratory

Jeremy Manier
Associate Vice President for CommunicationsUniversity Communications

Huntington Willard, an innovative leader in the fields of genetics and genome biology who has built comprehensive research centers at leading institutions, has been appointed the next president and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

President Robert J. Zimmer, who is also chairman of the MBL’s Board of Trustees, announced the appointment to the MBL and University communities. MBL is an affiliate of the University of Chicago, a relationship designed to yield novel avenues for scientific discovery and education at both institutions.

At the MBL, Willard will lead one of the world’s foremost centers for biological research, international collaboration and education. Willard, currently the Arts & Sciences Professor of Biology and Genome Sciences at Duke University, will begin his appointment at the MBL on Jan. 1, 2015.

Willard has earned a reputation as a groundbreaking scientist, a strong leader and builder of complex academic initiatives, as well as a talented educator who has received multiple teaching awards. From 2003 to 2014 he was the founding director of the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, a highly interdisciplinary unit that spanned the life sciences, engineering, medicine, social sciences and the humanities. For that program, Willard recruited 35 faculty members to Duke across 21 departments and established broad institutional strength in the genome sciences. He had previously chaired the Department of Genetics at Case Western Reserve University, where he also built a widely respected program of research and education.

As a researcher, Willard has explored many facets of genetics and genome biology, with a particular interest in the structure and function of chromosomes, the epigenetic regulation of gene silencing, and the evolution and organization of complex genomes. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has won many awards for genetics scholarship, including the William Allan Award from the American Society of Human Genetics.

“Hunt Willard is an outstanding scholar and a proven scientific leader who has created programs that have earned international respect,” said Zimmer. “He exemplifies the values that guide the Marine Biological Laboratory and the University of Chicago—wide-ranging collaboration, eagerness to explore and define new fields of study, and a dedication to discovery through engaged education. We are delighted to welcome him to this community, and confident that he will lead the MBL in a way that preserves its strengths, creates new opportunities for growth, and takes advantage of the relationship with the University of Chicago.”

Willard said he was attracted by the MBL’s historic role as a beacon for scientists from around the world, including its renowned summer courses and creative year-round programs of research and education.

“I’m honored to be named the next president and director of MBL,” Willard said. “The MBL has enjoyed such a strong tradition of integrating research and education since its founding, and offers wonderful opportunities to develop and implement novel strategies for tackling some of the most pressing questions in life sciences and biomedical research today. The highly interdisciplinary nature of its year-round and visiting scientists and students offers unique combinations of scholarship, teamwork and adaptability that can’t be easily matched elsewhere.

“I can’t imagine a place that better illustrates the values of integrated research and education that are important to me—as a scientist, an educator and as a leader. I look forward with great enthusiasm to joining this community, at both MBL and the University of Chicago.”

Jennifer Morgan, an MBL scientist and associate director of the Eugene Bell Center for Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering, said Willard is a perfect fit for the MBL’s intellectual culture.

“As a leader who has brought together researchers with many diverse kinds of expertise, Hunt Willard is an exceptional choice to enrich the spirit of innovation and collaboration that has guided the MBL since its founding in 1888,” Morgan said.

The MBL is known as an institution dedicated to scientific discovery and improving the human condition through research and education in biology, biomedicine and environmental science. In July 2013 the MBL and the University of Chicago formed an affiliation that is producing growing collaborations between the two institutions and researchers at Argonne National Laboratory, which is managed by UChicago and has many research ties to the University.

In addition to his leadership of the MBL, Willard will have a faculty appointment in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago. Prior to his appointments at Duke and Case Western Reserve, Willard held faculty positions at the University of Toronto and Stanford University and was founding president and director of the University Hospitals of Cleveland Research Institute. He received his PhD in genetics from Yale University and his AB degree in biology from Harvard University.

Willard is widely considered a leading figure among American geneticists, having authored or contributed to more than 300 scholarly publications, providing fundamental insights and new tools for studying how cells inactivate genes on the X chromosome and what DNA sequences are involved in chromosome segregation during cell division. His team also received international attention in 1997 when it constructed the world’s first human artificial chromosome.

“What’s so extraordinary about Hunt Willard’s academic career is his demonstrated ability to lead the charge in scientific discovery, both as an investigator and as a director of several large, ambitious programs,” said Neil Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and associate dean for academic strategy in UChicago’s Biological Sciences Division. “He has a sense of where fields are going, and an ability to identify and recruit the best academic talent. That’s going to make him an outstanding leader for the MBL, and a great colleague for all of us.”

Sally Kornbluth, provost of Duke University and the James B. Duke Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, praised Willard’s contributions at Duke.

“Hunt Willard is a stellar scientist, an energetic teacher and an innovative leader who helped make genomics a point of excellence at Duke,” Kornbluth said. “His appointment at the MBL heralds an exciting opportunity for the laboratory.”

Willard will succeed Arthur M. Sussman, the MBL’s interim president and director, who assumed that role in November with the departure of former President and Director Joan Ruderman. Zimmer sent a message to the MBL community last May praising Ruderman’s record of commitment to the lab, which began in 1974 when she first arrived as a postdoctoral researcher.