Ruth Lehmann has headed the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge for barely two weeks, but she’s already proving to be an outspoken critic of President Trump, skewering his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his treatment of foreigners who work and study in the United States.
Lehmann, a German native who became director of the MIT-affiliated institute after 24 years as a prominent cell biologist at New York University, said Trump has displayed “ridiculous” behavior by eschewing a mask to slow the spread of the coronavirus. She contrasted him with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former research scientist, who has won praise for containing the illness in that country.
“You see Merkel wearing a mask,” said Lehmann, 64, whose nonprofit institute has about 20 scientists in five laboratories studying the virus that causes COVID-19. “You lead by example.” Merkel recently started making official appearances wearing a mask after being questioned for never being pictured wearing one despite it being part of the government’s official guidance in the fight against the virus.
Lehmann, who has lived in the United States since 1988 and is considered a world authority on the germ cells that give rise to sperm and eggs, said she doesn’t agree with all of Merkel’s politics, but has no doubt about her intellect.
“She’s smart,” Lehmann said. “She listens to facts. He doesn’t listen. The ridicule I’m getting from my family [in Germany]. They say, ‘Have you had your shot of Clorox?’ ”
A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Lehmann has also tweeted a petition urging US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to rescind its recent order that put international students at risk of deportation if their college courses are conducted exclusively online this fall. She said that 57 scientists on the Whitehead staff are foreigners in the United States on visas and that two MIT undergraduates working on a COVID-19-related project at the institute could be affected by the new rule. MIT and Harvard have filed a federal lawsuit to block the Trump administration’s move.
Lehmann, who is moving her cell biology lab from NYU to the Whitehead, said that since Trump became president, she reluctantly advised some foreign researchers who worked for her to consider positions in other countries, including Canada, if there are openings. She cited an anti-immigrant climate in America.
“It’s just not friendly for foreigners,” said Lehmann, who says she got a very different reception when she arrived in the late 1980s. “It’s not friendly for people who believe in facts.. ... It’s not a progressive country at this point.”
A spokeswoman for ICE said the agency declined to comment because of the pending litigation.
Lehmann officially became the fifth head of the Whitehead on July 1, succeeding David Page. He stepped down after completing his third five-year term. Page, an expert on the Y chromosome who grew up in Pennsylvania’s Amish country and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant'’ in 1986 at age 30, continues to run a laboratory at the Whitehead.
Since its founding in 1982, the Whitehead Institute has become one of the world’s leading biomedical research centers. It was the single largest contributor to the Human Genome Project and contributed one third of the human genome sequence announced in 2000, according to MIT. It has also helped spawn a number of well-known drug firms in Massachusetts, including Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and Ironwood Pharmaceuticals.
The institute is an independent organization closely affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Whitehead members hold faculty appointments at the school. Research is conducted by 21 principal investigators ― members and fellows ― and about 300 visiting scientists, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate students from around the world. There are also about 100 administrators and support staff.
The Whitehead has an operating budget of about $80 million, according to a spokeswoman. Federal funding makes up about 21 percent of that, and most of it comes from the National Institutes of Health.
The institute had more than $627 million in assets in 2018, according to the most recent available federal tax filings.
Lehmann’s appointment is a homecoming of sorts. She came to the United States to serve as a Whitehead member and faculty member of MIT before leaving in 1996 for NYU, where she headed the cell biology department. She became a US citizen, she said, in 2007.
At first glance, it might appear that Lehmann couldn’t have picked a worse time to take the helm. Because of the pandemic, the institute closed on March 20 and told employees to work from home. It began reopening in early June, but only about half of the employees ― mostly bench scientists doing experiments ― are working inside the seven-story building at 455 Main St.
Lehmann said she has gone to the institute almost every day since she became director on July 1 but is spending much of her time in Zoom meetings with employees while at her apartment on Beacon Hill. She held a virtual “town hall” her first day but acknowledged it wasn’t an ideal way to meet staffers.
On the other hand, Lehmann said, the epidemic has only underscored the critical importance of biomedical research. Scientists at the Whitehead are studying various aspects of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from how it uses its spike protein to invade a human cell to why the infection often seems to make men sicker than women.
Pharmaceutical companies worldwide are working on at least 160 candidate vaccines, including 21 being tested in people, according to the World Health Organization. Several candidates have roots in Massachusetts. Although federal officials have repeatedly expressed optimism that a vaccine will be approved and ready for market by early next year ― far faster than any vaccine ever developed for a novel virus ― Lehmann seemed less sanguine.
“You can be optimistic, but you still have to be a realist,” she said. “It’s not just about having a good vaccine. You also have to have enough people being vaccinated.”
Public health experts say a minimum percentage of people must be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” and tame the epidemic. That may be challenging, Lehmann said. Some people stubbornly resist getting vaccinated against such serious preventable diseases as measles.
As a result, Lehmann said, it’s at least as important for scientists to find an effective medicine for COVID-19 as it is to develop a vaccine.
“We shouldn’t bet everything on a vaccine,” she said. “What was the rescue for HIV? It was the development of pharmaceuticals. And it wasn’t just one.”
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com