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NYU biologist will lead the Whitehead Institute

Ruth Lehmann will be the second woman to lead the Whitehead Institute. NYU Langone

Ruth Lehmann, a renowned biologist who is considered a world authority on the cells that give rise to sperm and eggs, will be the new head of the nonprofit Whitehead Institute in Cambridge.

The appointment, announced Thursday, is a homecoming for Lehmann, who was a Whitehead Institute member and faculty member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1988 to 1996. She left to head the cell biology department at New York University, where she has spent 23 years.

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to help shape the future of this wonderful institute that has been at the forefront of biomedical research for decades,” said Lehmann, a 64-year-old native of Germany.


Lehmann (right), who is also an investigator for the prestigious nonprofit Howard Hughes Medical Institute, in Chevy Chase, Md., will succeed David Page on July 1. He is stepping down after completing his third five-year term as director and president.

Charles D. Ellis, who chairs the Whitehead’s board of directors, said Lehmann “perfectly fits” the board’s vision for a new head. At NYU, she runs the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine and the Kimmel Center for Stem Cell Biology and “possesses a compelling vision for basic biomedical research in the coming decade,” he said.

Lehmann is the fifth head of the 37-year-old Whitehead Institute and the second woman. (The late MIT biology professor Susan Lindquist was the first.) Biotechnology, like other fields, has drawn criticism in recent years for having a dearth of female leaders.

“I’m always excited to see a woman who is deserving of a role get that role,” said Abbie Celniker, a partner at Third Rock Ventures in Boston, which invests in biotech companies.

“Ruth is a great hire for the Whitehead,” agreed Peter Hecht, CEO of Cambridge-based Cyclerion Therapeutics and a former Whitehead research fellow who in the late 1990s cofounded the firm that became Ironwood Pharmaceuticals.


In addition to her scientific acumen and leadership skills, Hecht said, Lehmann’s two decades in New York have given her a new perspective on research. “The Whitehead’s a great and special place, but I think it could also benefit from fresh eyes and ears,” he said.

Lehmann has made seminal discoveries in developmental and cell biology, particularly in the area of germ cells. Germ cells give rise to sperm and eggs and carry precious genetic information from the parent that they contribute to the embryo. Much of her work has involved the fruit fly, one of the most important model organisms in scientific research.

As a child, Lehmann was interested in the arts and science, according to an interview with her that was published in 2011 in the Journal of Cell Biology. Her mother was a teacher passionate about literature, she said. Her father was an engineer more interested in science.

“I was interested in both, but although I liked reading and poetry, it was very clear to me this wouldn’t be an easy career track,” she said.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.