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A stalwart partner is awarded medical school’s highest honor

Medicine@Yale, 2014 - July August


Foundation’s support has fueled Yale science for two decades and counting

In recognition of more than two decades of outstanding support for biomedical research at Yale School of Medicine, the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation has received the Peter Parker Medal, the school’s highest honor.

The foundation’s farsighted vision of supporting basic science research has contributed to the work of 15 Yale researchers, ranging from promising new investigators at the outset of their careers to Nobel laureates at the pinnacle of their fields. At a ceremony in March, Dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine Robert J. Alpern, M.D., praised the foundation’s loyalty to Yale. “You are committed to making the world better,” Alpern said.

The foundation has contributed more than $17.5 million since 1989, paving the way for a number of significant advances and programs. Recently, the foundation awarded grants of $1.5 million and $1.7 million to research projects by Joerg Bewersdorf, Ph.D., associate professor of cell biology, and Haifan Lin, Ph.D., professor of cell biology and genetics, respectively.

Bewersdorf, also associate professor of biomedical engineering, is a leader in developing light microscopes that allow the visualization of proteins and membranes within cell organelles and molecular machines with unprecedented precision. The new funding will support his development of novel approaches to manipulate these structures, in real time and in vivo, at the same sub-microscopic scale.

Lin, also professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences and director of the Yale Stem Cell Center (YSCC), has a longstanding relationship with the Mathers Foundation. The 2006 establishment of the YSCC was enabled in large part by the foundation’s support. In supporting the YSCC, “the foundation exemplified a willingness to support a controversial research area that was being held back by federal policies,” said Carolyn W. Slayman, Ph.D., Sterling Professor of Genetics, professor of cellular and molecular physiology, and deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs.

The new grant will support Lin’s pioneering research on the molecular interactions of a complex called piRNA-Piwi, which aims to explore how epigenetic factors—proteins and other molecules that specify gene expression states inherited from generation to generation—are recruited to their target sites in the genome.

The foundation has been a longtime supporter of Lyme disease research at Yale, where the tick-borne illness was first described in 1975. Another innovative investment helped establish the Yale Program for Critical Technologies in Molecular Medicine, one of the first facilities in the world to provide access to human tissues for research purposes. Additionally, foundation support has laid the groundwork for stem cell-derived therapies for Parkinson’s disease, the discovery of how cells store lipids, and research by James E. Rothman, Ph.D., the Fergus F. Wallace Professor of Biomedical Sciences, on how molecular messages are transmitted inside and outside cells—for which he won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Through its support of basic research, “the Mathers Foundation has been strategically pivotal to advances in health,” said Rothman, also professor and chair of cell biology, professor of chemistry, and director of the Nanobiology Institute on Yale’s West Campus. “Controlling something like atherosclerosis comes out of a century of investing in basic science.”

Established in 1975, the Mathers Foundation supports a broad range of research programs at a number of renowned institutions. In remarks, the foundation’s president, Donald E. Handelman, emphasized its goal of supporting research with the broadest relevance to science and health. Said Handelman, “We have had a unique and productive history at Yale and have done creative and bold research projects. I’m very proud of our relationship and association with Yale.”

The Peter Parker Medal is named for an intrepid alumnus of the School of Medicine, Yale College, and Yale Divinity School, who traveled to China in 1834 as a medical missionary. By founding the Ophthalmic Hospital at Canton, the Reverend Peter Parker, M.D., set the stage for the extraordinarily close and wide-ranging ties between Yale and China that endure to the present day.