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U-M's Yamashita named Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator

Yukiko Yamashita. Image credit: Michigan PhotographyYukiko Yamashita. Image credit: Michigan PhotographyANN ARBOR—Yukiko Yamashita of the University of Michigan's Life Sciences Institute is one of 27 biomedical researchers named today as Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators.

HHMI provides flexible support on renewable five-year appointments to allow scientists to move their research in creative new directions. This year, 1,155 applicants applied to be investigators. Those selected represent 19 institutions from across the United States. Yamashita joins five other current U-M faculty members—including one from LSI—on the list of HHMI investigators.

A central question fascinates Yamashita: When stem cells divide, what determines which daughter cell will remain a stem cell and which will differentiate into another tissue type?

Maintaining a balance between stem and differentiating cell populations during so-called asymmetrical cell division is critical because an excess of stem cells can lead to cancerous tumor growth, whereas too many differentiated cells can deplete the stem cell pool and reduce the capacity for tissue regeneration.

"I'm looking forward to designing and carrying out experiments that may yield new examples of asymmetrical stem cell division and perhaps finding unexpected links between those divisions and biological process," Yamashita said.

HHMI provides support for approximately 330 Hughes investigators and members of their research teams. Of the current investigators, 164 are members of the National Academy of Sciences and 15 are Nobel laureates.

"HHMI has a very simple mission," said HHMI President Robert Tjian. "We find the best original-thinking scientists and give them the resources to follow their instincts in discovering basic biological processes that may one day lead to better medical outcomes. This is a very talented group of scientists. And while we cannot predict where their research will take them, we're eager to help them move science forward."

Researchers with five to 15 years of experience as faculty members are eligible to apply to the investigator program. HHMI investigators receive salary, benefits, a research budget and funding for other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment.

Investigator appointments may be renewed for additional five-year terms, contingent on a scientific review.

"When it comes to research, HHMI takes the long view," said Jack Dixon, vice president and chief scientific officer of HHMI and former director of the Life Sciences Institute at U-M. "You have to have that in basic research because you have no way of knowing if someone's research is going to be transformative 15 to 20 years down the line. We pick the best people we can find and then provide long-term, stable support so they can act quickly on their best research ideas."

During fiscal year 2012, HHMI made disbursements of $919 million, including $800 million for biomedical research and $119 million in grants to support science education and international science. The institute's endowment at the close of fiscal year 2012 stood at about $16.1 billion. HHMI's headquarters is in Chevy Chase, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.

Other HHMI investigators at U-M are James Bardwell, Arul Chinnaiyan, John Moran, Mercedes Pascual and the LSI's David Ginsburg. U-M's Ming Lei is an HHMI "early career scientist."

Yamashita is a faculty member of the Life Sciences Institute's Center for Stem Cell Biology, where her laboratory is located and all her research is conducted. She is also an assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology and the Cellular and Molecular Biology Program at the U-M Medical School.