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Vanderbilt School of Medicine Basic Sciences names renowned scholar John Kuriyan as next dean

John Kuriyan (photo by Julia Schaletzky/UC Berkeley)

Vanderbilt University has named John Kuriyan, one of the world’s leading structural biologists, as its next dean of the School of Medicine Basic Sciences, C. Cybele Raver, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, announced today. Kuriyan’s appointment, effective Jan. 1, 2023, will advance the university’s goal of expanding its global research impact by leveraging fundamental investigations in molecular, cellular and developmental biology into foundational advances in drug discovery, pharmacology and genetic engineering.

Kuriyan, Distinguished Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator for more than 30 years, will succeed Lawrence J. Marnett, the founding dean of Basic Sciences, who has agreed to extend his leadership through December. Kuriyan is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a foreign member of the Royal Society, the independent scientific academy of the United Kingdom.

“As a superlative and highly accomplished biomedical scholar, Kuriyan fully understands Vanderbilt’s university-wide ambitions to catapult our research reputation forward,” said Raver, who led Kuriyan’s appointment as dean. “That he has chosen to advance his career at Vanderbilt speaks volumes about our capacity to make quantum leaps in the life-changing innovation for which he is known.”

A widely published and cited scholar in biochemistry, cancer and the mechanisms of signal transmission inside cells, Kuriyan’s research focuses on the workings of molecular switches in the cell, which has revealed pioneering new insights into the ways that many drugs used to treat certain forms of cancer gain their specificity at the molecular level. Kuriyan is a co-founder of Nurix Therapeutics, a publicly traded biotech company that is developing and testing therapies for late-stage cancers in the clinic.

“The School of Medicine Basic Sciences is a cornerstone of Vanderbilt’s research enterprise, critically bridging the gap between scientific discovery and making a positive impact on society,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said. “We are thrilled to welcome John Kuriyan, an internationally renowned biomedical scientist and innovator, to lead this vital area for Vanderbilt and strengthen it for the future.”

Kuriyan, originally from India, studied for two years at the University of Madras before transferring to Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He earned a bachelor of science in chemistry from Juniata College in 1981 and enrolled in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1986. His influential graduate advisers were distinguished scientists Martin Karplus and Gregory A. Petsko , who continued to serve as Kuriyan’s mentors while he completed a brief postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University on the dynamics of proteins. Karplus won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems in 2013.

“The opportunity to come to Vanderbilt and join the leadership of one of the nation’s best schools for cutting-edge biomedical research is a tremendous honor and privilege,” Kuriyan said. “I am impressed by Vanderbilt’s deeply collaborative and collegial community, its innovative and interdisciplinary approach to research, its unique partnership with a world-class medical center and its unwavering commitment to diversity and belonging. Most of all, I am inspired by the long-term investment in basic science that has been demonstrated by the leadership of Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center, manifested in the way they have created an inter-institutional environment in which basic science will be nourished and allowed to flourish. I look forward to building on Larry Marnett’s outstanding leadership of him and anticipate even greater discoveries made by Vanderbilt scientists in the days ahead. ”

Kuriyan has received numerous scientific honors, including the Richard Lounsbery Award from the National Academy of Sciences; the Stein and Moore Award and the DuPont-Merck Award, both from the Protein Society; the ASBMB-Merck Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; the American Association for Cancer Research Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cancer Research (given to investigators under the age of 40); and the Eli Lilly Award from the American Chemical Society. He was a Pew Biomedical Scholar from 1989 to 1993.

“John Kuriyan is an exceptional scientist, and we are excited to welcome him to this vitally important Vanderbilt leadership position,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, chief scientific and strategy officer and executive vice president for research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who participated on the search committee. “His vision of him and deep appreciation of curiosity-driven research and its translation to human endpoints, along with his thoughtful insights and innumerable scientific contributions, make him an ideal dean for Basic Sciences.”

Raver expressed thanks to Marnett and to members of the School of Medicine Basic Sciences Dean Search Committee, led by John Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science, as well as leaders across the university and Vanderbilt University Medical Center for their guidance and collaboration. Marnett has served as dean of the School of Medicine Basic Sciences since its creation in 2016, and he helped to craft the school’s unique biomedical research partnerships following the legal separation of the university and VUMC.

“John Kuriyan is recognized around the world for the quality and impact of his research,” said Marnett, who will return to the faculty after a sabbatical. “We share a collaborative approach to leadership and to engaging our community to generate the very best ideas for the school’s future, so I am excited for him’s leadership. He will be a beacon for attracting the very best biomedical scientists to campus.”

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