Former student honors Victor Ambros, PhD


WORCESTER, Mass. – In a gesture few ever get to make, H. Scott Silverman and his father Jeffrey L. Silverman have endowed the Silverman Chair in Natural Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to honor Victor R. Ambros, PhD, professor of molecular medicine and co-recipient of the 2008 Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research.

The endowment of the chair symbolizes the Silvermans’ enthusiasm for Ambros’ work and comes from a long-time friendship formed in 1997 when the younger Silverman, now a venture capitalist and investment fund manager, completed his honors research thesis under Dr. Ambros’ guidance at Dartmouth College. Both Scott and Jeff Silverman have long admired Ambros as a teacher and have followed his career, delighting in the numerous accolades Ambros has earned for his work. Pending University Board of Trustees approval, Victor Ambros will be the inaugural Silverman Chair in Natural Sciences.

“My family and I have a deep respect for Victor and his accomplishments,” said Scott Silverman. “His research has helped transform the understanding of the role RNA plays in nature. To celebrate Victor and to contribute to future scientific advancements, through this endowment to the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is a special privilege for my family.”

Ambros, who joined the vibrant RNA community at UMMS in 2007, is widely regarded as a central figure in RNA research for his work in identifying the function of microRNAs, the tiny molecules of ribonucleic acid that are now understood to play a critical role in gene regulation.

“The Silverman family has chosen to support research efforts at our medical school and in doing so, recognize an exceptional scientist and faculty member in Victor Ambros,” said Michael F. Collins, MD, chancellor of UMMS. “In addition to being an innovative and brilliant researcher, Victor’s gifts as a mentor and colleague have a profound impact on those around him. Dr. Ambros is the first to offer an idea or to suggest a thought to encourage young scientists in the pursuit of their own research. He is an integral member of a remarkable group of scientists at UMass Medical School who together are advancing the world’s understanding of biological mechanisms and furthering the field of biomedical sciences, both through their own work and their encouragement of others.”

In 1993, Ambros was the first to isolate microRNA in a pathway controlling development of the nematode worm C. elegans. Because of its presence on the lin-4 gene, which is unique to the C. elegans worm, the discovery appeared to be more an oddity than a major breakthrough. But David C. Baulcombe, PhD, a botanist at the University of Cambridge, England, discovered in 1999 that small RNAs similar to microRNAs are involved in the silencing of genes in plants as well, leading to the realization that the same mechanism was at work in both animals and plants. In 2000, Gary B. Ruvkun, PhD, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered a second microRNA in C. elegans and reported evidence that microRNAs are evolutionarily ancient. Since then, Ambros and others have identified a wide variety of genes for diverse microRNAs in animals and plants, raising new questions about gene regulation and expression. Ambros, Ruvkun and Baulcombe were honored with the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.

For Ambros, the real excitement of research lies in collaborations and conversations with colleagues and students, and he considers himself fortunate to have been surrounded throughout his career by energizing and brilliant people.

“I feel incredibly honored that the Silverman family has made this generous contribution to UMass Medical School and that I shall be the first incumbent of their chair,” said Ambros. “This is especially wonderful for me personally, since Scott did his thesis research in my lab, and has been a very close friend of mine and my family for a long time. It is wonderful to know that as we go forward with our research in the lab, in a very real sense, the Silvermans will be our partners.”

A 1997 graduate of Dartmouth College, Scott Silverman performed his honors thesis in the Ambros Lab, research that led to a Keasbey Scholarship at the University of Oxford. At Oxford, Scott studied cystic fibrosis and received a doctorate in clinical molecular genetics from the university’s Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. Scott subsequently embarked on a career as a venture capitalist. While with Atlas Venture and Oxford Bioscience Partners, he provided start-up financing for and guided numerous life science companies developing innovative therapeutics and technologies from emerging academic and scientific research. Last year, Scott joined with his father Jeff to establish Agman Partners, a multi-strategy investment fund. The elder Silverman has been a futures trader since graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in management. A former member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Board of Directors, Jeff chaired various committees and served for nine years as a popularly elected director from the exchange community.

“Having been educated in Massachusetts, I take additional pride in supporting the Commonwealth’s public medical school as it continues to expand its world-class research programs in the medical and biological sciences,” said Jeff. “With this chair in particular, we hope to support truly visionary faculty members, like Victor, who strive to find the unexpected, yet exceptional, scientific discovery that will have a dramatic impact on their fields and the world.”

Endowed chair and professor positions at UMMS provide an opportunity for private donors to support a specific area of academic excellence and scientific pursuit. They increase the university’s ability to attract individuals distinguished in their field and retain the very best faculty. With the addition of the Silverman Chair in Natural Sciences, UMMS has 30 endowed professorships and chairs that further the work of innovative and dedicated faculty members who strive to bring their cutting edge research to bear on some of the most troubling human diseases of our time.

“This generous endowment allows us to pursue ideas and research avenues that we wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to explore,” said Ambros.

Ambros completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as his postdoctoral research, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During graduate school, he worked with David Baltimore, PhD, a co-recipient of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries related to the interaction between tumor viruses and genetic material of the cell. In Dr. Baltimore’s lab, Ambros studied the poliovirus genome structure and replication. In 1979, he began his postdoctoral research in the lab of H. Robert Horvitz, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his research related to genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death. Working as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Horvitz’s lab, Ambros research focused on genetic pathways that control developmental timing in C. elegans. After completing his postdoctoral fellowship, in 1984 Ambros joined the faculty at Harvard where he remained until 1992, when he accepted a faculty position at Dartmouth College. Now at UMMS, Ambros continues his research on microRNA function and gene regulation during development, and is focused on understanding the genetic and molecular mechanisms that control cell division, differentiation and morphogenesis in animals. He joined UMMS in 2007, eager to expand his work in a thriving RNA community that includes, among other brilliant basic scientists, three Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators working in the field (Craig Mello, PhD; Melissa J. Moore, PhD; and Phillip D. Zamore, PhD).

The University of Massachusetts Medical School attracts more than $193 million in research funding annually, and its innovative programs are the centerpiece of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative. Consistently ranked by U.S.News & World Report as one of the leading medical schools in the nation for primary care education, UMMS comprises a medical school, graduate school of nursing, graduate school of biomedical sciences and an active research enterprise, and is a leader in health sciences education, research and public service. UMMS is the academic partner of UMass Memorial Health Care.