Erin O’Shea presented the Arnold D. Kates Common Hour lecture recently at Bowdoin. O’Shea is the president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and is the Paul C. Mangelsdorf Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University.

Organisms have evolved ways of keeping track of time so that they can schedule biological activities to take advantage of predictable changes in the environment, such as the alternation between day and night. These timekeepers are found in almost all cells inside our bodies and in other organisms, and are known as “circadian clocks” because they repeat every twenty-four hours. Circadian clocks influence many processes, including when we sleep and are awake, our body temperature, and when we eat. And we have all experienced when our circadian clock is not synchronized with the environment – this is the jet lag that occurs when we travel to a different time zone.

This year, Jeffrey Hall, Mike Young, and Michael Rosbash were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for work they did to identify the parts of the clock – the proteins involved – and how they work together to keep track of time. The single-celled bacterium Synechococcus elongatus is the simplest organism that has a circadian clock. In this talk, Erin O’Shea will describe how the parts of the clock were identified, how they work together to keep time, and the similarities and differences between the bacterial clock and the clock inside our cells.

O’Shea is president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and Paul C. Mangelsdorf Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University. She was named an HHMI investigator in 2000, became chief scientific officer in 2013, and the institute’s president in 2016. Prior to joining HHMI’s leadership team, she spent eight years at Harvard, where she directed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Center for Systems Biology. O’Shea also served on the faculty of the University of California-San Francisco. She earned a Ph.D in chemistry from MIT and a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Smith College.

O’Shea is known as a leader in the fields of gene regulation, signal transduction, and systems biology. She is currently developing a lab at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has won numerous awards.