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Unwavering support for science

Through the generosity of forward-thinking philanthropists near and far, five new endowed chairs were established at UMass Medical School

Samuel T. Byrne has a long record of philanthropic giving to many educational and health care institutions in Massachusetts, and now UMass Medical School is fortunate to call itself one of them. In mid-spring 2017, Mr. Byrne endowed a chair here in honor of his father, Joseph J. Byrne, PhD.

The purpose of the Joseph J. Byrne Chair in Biomedical Research is to support the research activities of an accomplished faculty member whose work is advancing the fundamental understanding of human biological systems and offering new and innovative pathways to treat human disease.

Chancellor Michael F. Collins said the donation is a wonderful display of support and generosity for the state’s public medical school, as well as a terrific tribute to Mr. Byrne’s father, who served as an associate provost for research at Tufts University and an associate dean for medical and governmental affairs at Tufts University School of Medicine before retiring in 1998.

Job Dekker, PhD, one of UMass Medical School’s most dynamic and cutting-edge researchers, was appointed to the Byrne Chair. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology and co-director of the Program in Systems Biology.

The Herman G. Berkman Chair in Diabetes Care Innovation was also established, but through a bequest from area philanthropist Herman G. Berkman, PhD, who passed away in January 2015 at the age of 91. Dr. Berkman, who earned his PhD in economics from the University of Wisconsin, had an extensive teaching career there and at New York University.

As a patient of the UMMS faculty in the Diabetes Center of Excellence, Dr. Berkman came to believe so much in the mission and care model there—especially its commitment to high quality and innovation—that he directed his estate to support this outstanding center, Chancellor Collins said.

Michael J. Thompson, MD, clinical professor of medicine and chief of adult diabetes clinical research, is the inaugural recipient of the Herman G. Berkman Chair in Diabetes Care Innovation.

In early spring 2017, Maroun Semaan made a gift bearing his name to establish two endowed chairs for deserving members of the UMMS faculty. Mr. Semaan, who was the co-founder and longtime director and president of Petrofac Group, made this generous gift through his foundation, The Maroun Semaan Foundation, which supports philanthropic activities in the fields of education, health care and social welfare.

“Mr. Semaan shared with me that it was ‘a special privilege to support the leading research’ at our medical school and that the ‘need to develop cures, new treatments and a deeper understanding of what contributes to human health is critically important. Over time, this work will prove to be a great equalizer for humanity as people around the globe, regardless of status, will reap the benefits of new therapies and biomedical advancements,’” Chancellor Collins said. Sadly, Mr. Semaan passed away in May 2017. 

Mark D. Johnson, MD, PhD, the founding chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, is the inaugural holder of the Maroun Semaan Chair in Neurosurgery, in recognition of his achievements as a physician-investigator working to develop innovative approaches to treating neurological diseases and disorders through outstanding education, research and care.

Marian Walhout, PhD, professor of molecular medicine and co-director of the Program in Systems Biology, is the inaugural recipient of the Maroun Semaan Chair in Biomedical Research. Dr. Walhout is a pioneer among those working to understand how genes are expressed on a system level, and how these complex biological networks adapt to various conditions.

The fifth newly endowed chair was created using support from the UMass ALS Cellucci Fund, which has for years been successfully raising funds to support the boldest research ideas in interdisciplinary labs at UMMS. The fund is named in honor of the late Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci. The UMass Board of Trustees approved using a portion of the endowment to create the Governor Paul Cellucci Chair in Neuroscience Research, and appointed Fen-Biao Gao, PhD, professor of neurology, as the inaugural holder.

Since joining UMMS in 2010, Dr. Gao’s lab has elucidated new connections between frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a disease process that results in progressive damage to the temporal and/or frontal lobes of the brain, and ALS, including one single gene that is directly linked to both conditions.

“We are fortunate to have the support of so many philanthropic leaders who believe in our mission and limitless potential to improve the health and well-being of the commonwealth, the nation and the global community,” Chancellor Collins said. “These wonderful gifts bring to nearly 50 the number of endowed chairs at UMass Medical School.”

Above, from left are recipients of five new endowed chairs established at UMass Chan Medical School: Job Dekker, PhD; Michael J. Thompson, MD; Marian Walhout, PhD; Mark D. Johnson, MD, PhD; and Fen-Bao Gao, PhD.