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Van der Donk Selected as HHMI Investigator

Wilfred van der DonkThis year, 1,070 applications were received for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigators program. Fifty-six Investigators were chosen, with only two selected from the University of Illinois: Dr. Phillip Newmark, and the Richard E. Heckert Chair in Chemistry, Dr. Wilfred A. van der Donk.

"Although he's intensely focused on this fundamental research, which he calls an arms race with the microbes, van der Donk is equally committed to inspiring students — in both the classroom and the laboratory — to become excited about science," HHMI officials wrote in announcing the award.

As a researcher, Dr. van der Donk is no stranger to undertaking large and cutting-edge research. Last year, he was a co-recipient of a five-year, $7-million grant from the National Institutes of Health to discover, develop, and produce antibiotic agents.

"Wilfred van der Donk is one of the country's leading chemical biologists," said Steve Zimmerman, Head of the Department of Chemistry. "He combines a sharp eye for critical problems with a deeply analytical and creative mind that produces unique solutions. The HHMI award will give him the freedom to tackle some very important and challenging problems already underway in his laboratory, such as developing new antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections."

"He will also be able to initiate new projects in the area of cell biology, with one project potentially offering new insights into the malaria life cycle in human cells," Zimmerman continued. "Wilfred is all around an outstanding teacher, scholar, and colleague — always ready to help and with outstanding judgment and standards."

As an HHMI Investigator, van der Donk plans to research new classes of compounds that potentially could be used as antibiotics. These compounds and microbial agents, which previously have not been used for therapeutic purposes in humans, could give rise to a new generation of antibiotics.

Two alumni from the Department of Chemistry previously have been selected as HHMI Investigators. In 1993, Stephen J. Elledge (B.S., 1978) was chosen and in 2005, Milan Mrksich (B.S., 1989) became an HHMI investigator. Both studied as undergraduates at Illinois, with Mrksich's research occuring in the lab of the current head of the department, Dr. Steve Zimmerman.

Three other current faculty members from Illinois have received HHMI awards, two of whom are associated with the Chemistry Department. Chemistry professor Yi Lu was chosen as an HHMI Professor in 2002, and chemistry affiliate and physics professor Taekjip Ha was chosen as an HHMI Investigator in 2005.

Selection as a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator means many things, not the least of which is the opportunity to pursue ambitious, risky, and long-term research plans that the researchers may not have been able to tackle with other sources of funding. This year alone, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has pledged more than $600 million to support the new researchers during their first term of appointment.

To learn more about Dr. van der Donk's research, visit

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