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George and Dolores Eccles Foundation Endows Two Chairs To Honor University's First Nobel Laureate, Mario Capecchi

Feb 28, 2008 9:00 AM

What more can you give a Nobel Prize winner, after he’s been feted by Swedish royalty and presented the golden medal that represents the pinnacle of scientific achievement?

The generous answer from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation is to establish two $1 million endowed chairs in honor of University of Utah geneticist Mario R. Capecchi, Ph.D., winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. The chairs will help fulfill one of Capecchi’s most important goals as an educator and scientist—providing outstanding young researchers in genetics and biology much-needed financial help to launch their careers at the University.

Spencer F. Eccles, chairman and chief executive officer of the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation and chairman emeritus of Wells Fargo, made the surprise announcement on Saturday evening, Feb. 25, before 1,000 friends, colleagues, and dignitaries attending a gala in honor of Capecchi, who is the University’s first Nobel Laureate.

“I’m thrilled to announce our gift of $2 million to create the Mario R. Capecchi, Ph.D., Endowed Chairs in Genetics and Biology, established in honor of the University of Utah’s First Nobel Laureate by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation,” Eccles said. “We know that many outstanding young scientists in the years to come will be inspired by the opportunity to occupy these chairs that bear your name.”

The Eccles foundation has a long-standing interest in the University’s world-class human genetics program and in the work of Capecchi, who is professor and co-chair of human genetics and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. In the mid-1980s, in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the foundation built, furnished, and provided funds for the George and Dolores Eccles Institute of Human Genetics, the building that houses the human genetics program, including Capecchi’s office and lab. With its latest gift, the Eccles Foundation has contributed more than $17 million to the U’s human genetics education and research programs.

The foundation’s other directors include Lisa Eccles, president, and Robert M. Graham, secretary, general counsel, and treasurer.

Capecchi and two other scientists won the Nobel Prize in October for their pioneering research in “knockout gene” technology in mice, a technique that has revolutionized the study of mammalian biology and allowed the creation of animal models for hundreds of human diseases, including the modeling of cancers in the mouse. After Capecchi won the award, the foundation directors wanted to surprise him and University with “special congratulations,” Eccles said. The directors set three goals for their gift:

• To permanently commemorate this once-in-a-lifetime moment in the history of the University of Utah
• To create something that honors Capecchi in perpetuity as the University’s first Nobel Laureate
• To invest in a way that makes a real and lasting difference in the future of the University’s human genetics and biology programs

Knowing Capecchi’s commitment and passion for supporting young scientists, whom Eccles described as “the Nobel winners of tomorrow,” the foundation directors decided to establish an endowed chair to help recruit and retain some of the best and brightest young researchers, Eccles said. "But then we thought again. This is, after all, a Nobel Prize,” he said. “We’d better make that two endowed chairs.”

These endowed chairs are unique because they will rotate to fund two untenured, junior scientists from the University and around world to pursue their research and work alongside Capecchi for three-year periods. Typically, endowed chairs are awarded to senior, tenured faculty. The chairs are in genetics and biology because Capecchi’s first appointment at the University, after leaving the faculty of Harvard Medical School in 1973, was in the biology department. He since has moved to the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics, but also retains his appointment in biology.

University President Michael K. Young said the endowed chairs are not only a fitting tribute to Capecchi, but also are an investment in the University’s future.

“These endowed chairs will give some of the finest young biologists and geneticists in the world the opportunity to establish their careers while working side-by-side with a Nobel laureate at the University of Utah,” Young said. “As the University produces more world-class scientists—and Nobel Prize winners—in the coming years, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation will be remembered for its great generosity in establishing a lasting legacy to build on the great work of Mario Capecchi.”

When Capecchi left Harvard to join the University of Utah biology department in 1973, he wanted to address the “big questions” in his science. Utah’s vast and beckoning landscape, combined with the freedom he was given in his research at the U, inspired him to do just that. He hopes those who hold the endowed chairs can find that same inspiration at the University of Utah.

“For the University to cultivate its next Nobel Prize winner, it must have the resources to produce great scientists. Through the kindness and foresight of The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, the University can help promising, younger geneticists and biologists make future great discoveries,” Capecchi said. “Establishing two endowed chairs in my name is an honor for which I will always be grateful to the foundation.”

At Saturday’s gala for Capecchi, Eccles echoed the sentiment.

“Dr. Capecchi, it is truly an honor for us to pay tribute to you, and to share in all you have accomplished. And, because of you, and all those who will hold the Capecchi Chairs in the years ahead, I do believe ‘the best is yet to come.’ ”

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