Erin O’Shea, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

TITLE: Vice President & Chief Scientific Officer

FUNDING AREAS: Science, STEM, and biomedical research

CONTACT: osheae@hhmi.org, 301-205-8500

IP TAKE: O'Shea completed her PhD at MIT in two and a half years, and she is known for the focus she brings to everything she does, from training dogs to conducting research. But she also seems to be an approachable, supportive funder.

PROFILE: Erin K. O'Shea, PhD, serves as vice president and chief scientific officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), headquartered in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She is also a professor of molecular and cellular biology, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology, and director of the Harvard FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University. O'Shea is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Before ascending to her current role at HHMI, she was an HHMI investigator starting in 2005.

 

As chief scientific officer now of HHMI, O'Shea directs the institute's flagship investigator program, in which leading scientists and their teams conduct research in HHMI laboratories across the United States. She also oversees a rich portfolio of programs that support scientists and innovative research. In addition, O'Shea is responsible for spotting new opportunities that capitalize on the institute's expertise in biomedical research and science education.

HHMI advances scientific research and STEM education throughout the United States. In STEM education, HHMI is interested in science educators and institutions of higher education with forward-thinking, innovative approaches to undergraduate instruction that make science, mathematics, and other STEM-related disciplines more engaging for students. This engagement is a constant challenge for STEM fields, with only about 40 percent of students who enter college majoring in these disciplines actually completing their degrees. For underrepresented minority groups, that proportion is about 20 percent.

O'Shea knows firsthand about making science more engaging for undergraduate students. As a member of the arts and sciences faculty at Harvard University, O'Shea teamed with a group of colleagues to create an innovative undergraduate course that presents science as a detective story with chemistry and biology. Students learn these foundational life sciences by exploring a series of case studies. The course draws more than 500 students each year, and O'Shea reported that the number of life science majors at Harvard had increased 40 percent since the course began.

As a science educator and mentor, O'Shea enjoys watching people develop into independent scientists. She hopes that aspiring scientists experience the excitement of solving new scientific challenges and that the experimentation and research processes can be just as satisfying as the results themselves.

In her own research, O'Shea is an expert in systems biology and gene regulation. Much of her work focuses on how cells sense and respond to changes in their environment. This work has significance for a greater understanding of human cell growth in diseases, including cancer.

At HHMI, O'Shea sees her most important role as identifying and supporting the right people. "If you want people to succeed, you've got to pick the people well and do everything you can to support them," she has said. An example of her dedication and focus, known to others as "the O'Shea way," comes from a former colleague who sought her feedback when he wrote his first grant. Over a period of two weeks, right up to the submission deadline, she sent a series of questions and comments that he incorporated into his revisions. The process was not easy, but he called the end product excellent.

Scientists and institutions seeking support from HHMI and O'Shea should come with well thought-out ideas and a willingness to do something bold and different, especially when it comes to raising student interest in STEM education. Those who do this and are committed to success will find a powerful champion in O'Shea.