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Jonathan Widom, Prominent Biochemist, Dies at 55

Led research center with unconventional approaches to understanding cancer

July 20, 2011 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Jonathan Widom, the William Deering Professor of Molecular Biosciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, died July 18 of an apparent heart attack. He was 55.

Also the principal investigator of Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, the internationally renowned scholar was admired by colleagues, students and friends alike for the creativity, humor and enthusiasm that he brought to all he endeavored.

In his research, Widom focused on how DNA is packaged into chromosomes -- and the location of nucleosomes specifically. The work has had profound implications for how genes are able to be read in the cell and how mutations outside of the regions that encode proteins can lead to errors and disease.

“Jon was a wonderful colleague who did everything with great enthusiasm -- research, teaching, cooking, attending operas -- and he did everything extremely well,” said Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer. “He leaves a tremendous void in our lives and in our University.”  

Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, which Widom led, is one of 12 established nationwide in 2009 by the National Cancer Institute. The center brings together physical scientists and cancer biologists to use non-traditional, physical sciences-based approaches to understand and control cancer.

In June, a two-day symposium sponsored by the center brought internationally renowned scholars to Northwestern to share insights about rethinking approaches to the war on cancer. They came together “inspired by the knowledge that a new understanding of cancer is necessary to secure a conclusion to what has been a difficult and prolonged war,” Widom said last month.

Widom’s recent work focused on developing a unified framework to explain how changes in cell state or development can influence nucleosome positions and, conversely, how nucleosome positions can influence cell state and development.

“Jon was able to seamlessly blend the biological questions he so passionately pursued with his broad background in chemical principles and quantitative analysis,” said colleague Kelly E. Mayo, chair of the department of molecular biosciences, Widom’s departmental home.

“His contributions to the fields of chromatin packaging and gene regulation are unquestioned and are reflected in his outstanding international reputation,” Mayo said.

Earlier this year the University honored Widom for his important research contributions with the Martin E. and Gertrude G. Walder Award for Research Excellence.

“We will sorely miss Jonathan’s many contributions to the college and his field at large,” Weinberg Dean Sarah C. Mangelsdorf said. “He was a distinguished researcher and valued colleague.”

Widom held appointments in the departments of molecular biosciences and chemistry in Weinberg, the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has supported his research since 1985.

A highly regarded teacher of undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, Widom played a major role in the reorganization of the curriculum in biochemistry and biophysics and initiated the University’s NIH Molecular Biophysics Training Program. He directed the program from 1992 to 1998.

“Jon was much more than an outstanding scientist,” Mayo stressed. “He was a warm and caring friend who gave freely of his time, advice and expertise and a dedicated mentor who always gave credit to his ‘troops,’ his laboratory trainees. He loved opera, travel, and good food and coffee, all best shared with the company of others.”

Widom chaired the department of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology (now the department of molecular biosciences) from 1998 to 2004. As director of Northwestern’s Center for Structural Biology from 1994 to 2000, he obtained substantial funding from the W. M. Keck Foundation to purchase state-of-the-art instrumentation for the analysis of the biochemical and biophysical properties of proteins. Widom directed the Keck Biophysics Facility since its inception.

In addition to the Walder award, Widom received numerous prestigious awards during his career, including the Presidential Young Investigator Award and the Searle Scholars Award.

Widom, who joined the Northwestern faculty in 1991, also served on the faculty of the University’s Interdepartmental Biological Sciences Program (IBiS), which brings together basic and applied sciences faculty from both the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Widom received his B.A. in chemistry from Cornell University in 1977 and earned his doctorate in biochemistry from Stanford University in 1982. He spent two years at the University of Cambridge on a postdoctoral fellowship before joining the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he was an assistant professor from 1985 to 1991.

Widom is survived by his parents, Ben and Joanne, his brother, Michael, and his sister, Elisabeth. He was married to Daphne E. Schneider for 34 years. Burial will be private but condolences may be sent to: The Widom Family, 204 The Parkway, Ithaca, NY 14850.

Donations may be made to Northwestern University to endow a lectureship in Widom's name, the Jonathan Widom Lectures in Molecular Biosciences. Checks should be payable to Northwestern University and mailed to Catrina Dagostino, assistant director of development, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern University, 2020 Ridge Ave., Evanston, IL 60208-4308. Please note on the memo line or in a cover message that the gift is in honor of Jonathan Widom.

Donations may be made online. Select “Make a Gift,” then under “My Designation” enter “In honor of Jonathan Widom.” For further information, call (800) 222-5603 or email Catrina Dagostino.

Donations also may be made to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and designated as a commemorative gift in honor of Jonathan Widom.

The department of molecular biosciences will be organizing a scientific symposium to celebrate Widom’s life and accomplishments. The event will be held during the upcoming academic year; details are forthcoming.

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