Susan Martinis receives Stephen G. Sligar Professorship
Alumnus Kris Jenner endows the professorship in honor of his mentor at IllinoisDepartment of Biochemistry. Now, she has also received a professorship—one of the highest honors bestowed upon faculty at Illinois.
Martinis has been named the recipient of the Stephen G. Sligar Professorship, which was created this year by a gift from the Jenner Family Faculty Excellence Fund.
A professorship is intended to encourage promising faculty to expand their careers at Illinois, and this one is unique as it was funded by an alumnus, Kris Jenner (BS, ’84, biochemistry), in honor of a current faculty member. Sligar is a Swanlund Chair and professor of biochemistry, chemistry, and biophysics and computational biology. He also directs the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
Deepening the Illinois connection on this professorship, Martinis (PhD, ’90, biochemistry) and Sligar (MS, ’71, PhD, ’75, physics) are also alumni of Illinois. Sligar was Martinis’ faculty advisor when she studied here in the late 1980s. An external committee comprised of highly accomplished faculty outside of MCB selected Martinis to receive the professorship.
Originally from Mascoutah, Illinois, Jenner came to Illinois on a football scholarship and was part of the 1983 Rose Bowl team as a quarterback. In the classroom, however, he was inspired to pursue a career in medicine, as well as research, which was fostered by his undergraduate research project in Sligar’s biochemistry laboratory. He credits Sligar with helping him become a Marshall Scholar, one of the most prestigious fellowships for a college student.
Jenner went on to earn a PhD in molecular biology and pursued a medical degree at Johns Hopkins, where he met his wife, Susan Cummings, now a pediatric cardiologist. During his medical residency, Jenner changed course and pursued a career in finance. He quickly distinguished himself, outperforming peers and becoming lead portfolio manager for T. Rowe Price’s Health Sciences Fund. In 2013, he founded Rock Springs Capital in Baltimore.
During the investiture ceremony on campus, Jenner credited Sligar for teaching him how to conduct persistent and focused hard work.
“My wife and I believe in giving back to subjects we care deeply about,” Jenner said. “You need a personal connection to connect a concept to an outcome.”
Martinis is an internationally respected scholar in the field of RNA-protein interactions and aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases. Her work is most currently supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and the W.M. Keck Foundation. She was a founding member of the National Institutes of Health Molecular Genetics A study section, and she is known for high-quality teaching and mentorship. She provides key guidance in the recruitment and mentoring of faculty.
After receiving her doctoral degree from Illinois, Martinis spent several years launching a biotech startup and then earning tenure as a faculty member at the University of Houston. She was recruited back to Illinois in 2005. She said that receiving a professorship from her alma mater resonated deeply with her.
“I think of this as not only honoring my research, but my service and teaching,” said Martinis. “We always try to understand the next frontier in each area. Currently I am moving my research program in new directions that investigate ‘house-keeping’ proteins, which have been re-purposed for new and novel activities. Part of that includes developing a foundation that’s different than what’s been done before, and to secure grants. This professorship will provide means to enhance my success.”
Sligar joined Illinois as a professor in 1982, and has since become renowned for his research in drug discovery, endocrinology, enzymology, membrane biology, neurobiology, protein structure, receptor biochemistry, and signal transduction. He has also been honored before for his inspiring mentoring and advising.
“It’s nice to be honored for research successes, but this recognition from Dr. Jenner is really quite special and a surprise,” Sligar said, at the investiture ceremony. “As educators, we don’t really appreciate the impact we have on people for many, many years.”
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