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Dr. Jonathan Widom, Prominent Biochemist, Dies

Dr. Jonathan Widom, Prominent Biochemist, Dies

July 2011

Jonathan Widom, the William Deering Professor of Molecular Biosciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, died July 18 of an apparent heart attack. He was 55.

Also the principal investigator of Northwestern's Physical Sciences-Oncology Center (PS-OC), the internationally renowned scholar was admired by colleagues, students and friends alike for the creativity, humor and enthusiasm that he brought to all he endeavored. Northwestern's PS-OC is one of 12 established nationwide in 2009 by the National Cancer Institute, bringing together physical scientists and cancer biologists to use non-traditional, physical sciences-based approaches to understand and control cancer. Widom was also a member of the Lurie Cancer Center.

In his research, Dr. Widom focused on how DNA is packaged into chromosomes -- and the location of nucleosomes specifically. The work has had profound implications for how genes are able to be read in the cell and how mutations outside of the regions that encode proteins can lead to errors and disease.

"Jon was a wonderful colleague who did everything with great enthusiasm -- research, teaching, cooking, attending operas -- and he did everything extremely well," said Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer. "He leaves a tremendous void in our lives and in our University."

In June, a two-day symposium sponsored by the PS-OC brought internationally renowned scholars to Northwestern to share insights about rethinking approaches to the war on cancer. They came together "inspired by the knowledge that a new understanding of cancer is necessary to secure a conclusion to what has been a difficult and prolonged war," Widom said last month.

Dr. Widom's recent work focused on developing a unified framework to explain how changes in cell state or development can influence nucleosome positions and, conversely, how nucleosome positions can influence cell state and development.

"Jon was able to seamlessly blend the biological questions he so passionately pursued with his broad background in chemical principles and quantitative analysis," said colleague Kelly E. Mayo, chair of the department of molecular biosciences, Widom's departmental home. "Jon was much more than an outstanding scientist," Mayo stressed. "He was a warm and caring friend who gave freely of his time, advice and expertise and a dedicated mentor who always gave credit to his 'troops,' his laboratory trainees. He loved opera, travel, and good food and coffee, all best shared with the company of others."

Dr. Widom chaired the department of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology (now the department of molecular biosciences) from 1998 to 2004. As director of Northwestern's Center for Structural Biology from 1994 to 2000, he obtained substantial funding from the W. M. Keck Foundation to purchase state-of-the-art instrumentation for the analysis of the biochemical and biophysical properties of proteins. Widom directed the Keck Biophysics Facility since its inception.

Dr. Widom, who joined the Northwestern faculty in 1991, was honored earlier this year for his important research contributions with the Martin E. and Gertrude G. Walder Award for Research Excellence. In addition he received numerous prestigious awards during his career, including the Presidential Young Investigator Award and the Searle Scholars Award.

Widom is survived by his parents, Ben and Joanne, of Ithaca, NY, and a brother and a sister. Burial will be private but condolences may be sent to: The Widom Family, 204 The Parkway, Ithaca, NY 14850.

Gifts in Widom's memory may be made to Northwestern for an endowed lectureship in his name or to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

For Northwestern gifts: Stephanie A. Banta, senior director of development, Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern University, 2020 Ridge Ave., 4th floor, Evanston, IL 60208-4308;;; (800) 222-5603.

For Lyric Opera gifts: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Suite 860, Chicago, IL 60606;; (312) 332-2244, ext. 3500.

The department of molecular biosciences will be organizing a scientific symposium to celebrate Widom's life and accomplishments. The event will be held during the upcoming academic year; details are forthcoming.

(Last updated on June 21, 2013 )