Honorary Degree Recipient
Doctor of Science
Thomas R. Cech is a distinguished scientist and educator. Since 2000, he has been president of the nation’s largest private source of support for biomedical research and science education — the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
In 1989, at the age of 41, Thomas R. Cech was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking discovery of ribozymes, or catalytic RNA. This discovery was so significant that it altered the central dogma of the biosciences. Scientists who once thought that RNA (ribonucleic acid) in living cells was passive, learned that it can act as an enzyme and function as a biologic catalyst. As a result, chemistry and biology textbooks have been revised and a new way of thinking about biochemical research has begun. This discovery has also sparked intense efforts to develop ribozymes as pharmaceuticals directed against viruses, cancer and genetic diseases.
Cech’s other area of focus is telomerase — an unusual, yet key enzyme responsible for replication of chromosomes, which has implications in the scientific understanding of the duplication of cancer cells. His lab's discovery of a telomerase subunit is helping scientists better understand the behavior of HIV.
Born in Chicago and raised in Iowa City, Iowa, Cech developed a love of science as a child. He discovered his penchant for biological chemistry and met his wife, Carol, while an undergraduate at Grinnell College. While they both earned doctorates in chemistry from the University of California-Berkeley, he found his scientific niche — chromosome structure and function, which remains the focus of his work to this day. After completing postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cech joined the University of Colorado faculty in 1978. He has been a Hughes investigator since 1988.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute supports hundreds of biomedical scientists working at the forefront of their fields. Although employees of the Institute, Hughes investigators continue to be based at their institutions, typically leading a research group of 10-25 students, postdoctoral associates and technicians. They also continue to serve as faculty members.
The integration of research and teaching is something Cech firmly believes in. “The most vibrant science education experiences,” he says, “come not from classroom teaching but when undergraduates enter research laboratories where they have the opportunity to work on state-of-the-art equipment and on questions whose answers are not yet known.” Keeping HHMI investigators at their institutions is one way HHMI is helping to foster the next generation of researchers.
Cech and HHMI have demonstrated strong support of UVM, providing millions of dollars in aid to UVM researchers and helping to establish both the undergraduate science education HELiX program and the College of Medicine's program in structural biology.
Through his work at HHMI, and his strong sense of responsibility as a scientist
and educator, Cech ensures that scientists across the country are equipped with
the quality resources they need to help them uncover answers to how the body
functions and why diseases occur.