HHMI President Robert Tjian will step down in late 2016.


  • Tjian became president of HHMI in April 2009.
  • During his tenure, Tjian catalyzed new programs in science and science education, emphasizing collaboration and innovation.
  • He plans to return to research in his lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

Robert Tjian, President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute since April 2009, today announced that he will step down as head of the Institute at the end of 2016.

“It has been a privilege to lead this extraordinary organization. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to help support and nurture the work of amazing scientists and many true scientific leaders who are having an impact on the life sciences,” said Tjian. “At the same time, I realize that there are still important scientific questions to be addressed in my lab at Berkeley. I look forward to returning to the lab full time to do research.”

Kurt L. Schmoke, Chairman of the HHMI Trustees, lauded Tjian’s leadership and stewardship of the Institute.

“Bob Tjian’s leadership of HHMI has been exceptional, and the HHMI Trustees have had the good fortune to work closely with him to help the Institute open new areas of opportunity for scientists and science educators alike,” said Schmoke, President of the University of Baltimore.

Tjian's tenure as president of HHMI has been marked by the introduction of new programs to support early career scientists; initiatives that emphasized collaboration between philanthropic partners; and bold experiments to communicate scientific research in new and innovative ways. In science education, Tjian championed efforts to rethink HHMI’s existing programs, putting an emphasis on diversity and inclusivity and challenging universities to reevaluate how they teach science. He also catalyzed HHMI’s move into documentary film and educational media, seeing opportunities to reach broader audiences.

“As I’ve always said, great scientists change what they do all the time,” said Tjian. “I’ve tried to instill that adaptability and flexibility in our programs at HHMI.”

Tjian was born in Hong Kong, the youngest of nine children. His family fled China before the Communist Revolution and eventually settled in New Jersey. Known as a voracious consumer of scientific information and data, Tjian famously talked his way into the biochemistry laboratory of the late Daniel Koshland as a Berkeley undergraduate—even though he had never taken a single course in the subject.

Tjian went on to receive a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Berkeley in 1971 and a PhD from Harvard University in 1976. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory with James Watson, he joined the Berkeley faculty in 1979. At Berkeley, Tjian has assumed a variety of leadership roles, including spearheading a major campus initiative to support and implement new paradigms for bioscience teaching and research. He served as the Director of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center, and the Faculty Director of the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received many awards honoring his scientific contributions, including the Alfred P. Sloan Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University.

Understanding how genes work is one of the great achievements of modern biology and Tjian's contributions to this body of knowledge have been significant and pioneering. He studies the biochemical steps involved in controlling how genes are turned on and off, key steps in the process of decoding the human genome. He discovered proteins called transcription factors that bind to specific sections of DNA and play a critical role in controlling how genetic information is transcribed and translated into the thousands of biomolecules that keep cells, tissues, and organisms alive.

Tjian's laboratory has illuminated the relationship between disruptions in the process of transcription and human diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and Huntington's. His lab has also studied how transcription factors control the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into muscle, liver, and neurons. While serving as HHMI’s president, Tjian has remained an active scientist. His small laboratory group at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus is focused on the development of new approaches to image biochemical activities in single living cells. He also maintains a research laboratory at UC Berkeley, where he is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.


The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays a powerful role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States. Its scientists, located across the country and around the world, have made important discoveries that advance both human health and our fundamental understanding of biology. The Institute also aims to transform science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research. HHMI has an endowment of approximately $18.6 billion. Its headquarters are located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.

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