Prominent researcher is named the J. Woodland Hastings Endowed Chair in Biochemistry

Emad Tajkhorshid recognized as a leader in his field

Emad Tajkhorshid, J. Woodland Hastings Endowed Chair in Biochemistry, poses with Tamara T. Mitchell, who, with her late husband, George W. Mitchell III, created the position through a gift to the university.
Emad Tajkhorshid, J. Woodland Hastings Endowed Chair in Biochemistry, poses with Tamara T. Mitchell, who, with her late husband, George W. Mitchell III, created the position through a gift to the university.

Emad Tajkhorshid, a faculty member in the College of LAS and a world leader in developing and applying advanced computational techniques to understand proteins, has been named the J. Woodland Hastings Endowed Chair in Biochemistry.

An investiture is one of the highest honors that a faculty member can receive. This one is named for the late John Woodland “Woody” Hastings (1927-2014), and set up by donors George and Tamara Mitchell. Hastings was a decorated scholar who served as a faculty member at Illinois from 1957-66 and was best known for his innovation in the field of bioluminescence. He was also a founder in the field of circadian biology, focusing on the biological cycles of plants, animals, fungi, and other living things.

Tajkhorshid is a professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and computational biology. He is also professor and head of  pharmacology, and interim head of the medical biochemistry. He joined the Department of Biochemistry and pharmacology in 2007, and has since developed an extensive research portfolio. He was chosen for the award by a committee of his senior colleagues who hold endowed positions. He is a member of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

George W. Mitchell III (1942-2016) earned his master’s degree in chemistry from U of I in 1966 while working under the mentorship of Professor Hastings. He moved with Hastings to Harvard University, where he continued his research to receive a doctoral degree in 1969.

University of Illinois faculty influenced Mitchell greatly throughout his career and entrepreneurial efforts, which revolutionized biomedical research and patient care. Mitchell co-founded SLM Instruments along with David Laker and Dick Spencer (MS, ’67 PhD, ’70; chemistry; MBA, ’92) who also were affiliated with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Laker was a machinist for the department). SLM Instruments designed and built the first commercial instrument to measure biological fluorescence – a groundbreaking advance in medicine and biological research.

Tamara T. Mitchell was employed by Carle Clinic and Carle Foundation Hospital as well as serving as a clinical associate professor with the Regional College of Medicine at U of I from 1970-2001. Her medical and research interests focused on family practice, rural health, and farm safety. At the time of her retirement in 2001, she was serving as a medical director at Carle Clinic. Tamara Mitchell was chosen by her peers as among the Best Doctors in the Midwest in 1996.

Tamara Mitchell spoke at the ceremony, held at the Beckman Institute, and described Hastings as a scientist of passion and generosity who “was never in it for the money, rather for his own curiosity and love of science.”

Tajkhorshid has authored over 180 research articles with over 17,500 citations in high-profile journals such as Nature, Science, eLife, and PNAS. He has delivered nearly 150 invited lectures at international meetings, universities, and research institutes. He serves on the editorial boards of multiple journals, including Biophysical Journal, Journal of Biological Chemistry, and PLoS Computational Biology.

He started his career with pharmacy and doctoral degrees in medicinal chemistry at Tehran University. He then earned a second doctoral degree in molecular biophysics from the University of Heidelberg before he moved to the U of I at Urbana-Champaign, where he completed postdoctoral studies in computational biophysics at the Beckman Institute.

Tajkhorshid joined the faculty as a professor of biochemistry and pharmacology in 2007, was promoted to associate professor in 2010, and then again to the rank of professor in 2013. In 2015, Tajkhorshid was named a University of Illinois Scholar, after being nominated by both the Urbana-Champaign and Chicago campuses, and was then awarded the Faculty Excellence Award from the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology in 2016.

Speakers at the ceremony included U of I Provost John Wilkin, Feng Sheng Hu, the Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of LAS, Steve Sligar, director of the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Susan Martinis, head of the Department of Biochemistry. Martinis said Tajkhorshid’s potential was obvious from early in his career.

“We often talk about the powerful legacy of the Department of Biochemistry and the University of Illinois. All aspects of Emad’s career in academia honor that and continue that legacy,” she said.

Martinis added: “Many people in this room know how wonderful a collaborator Emad is, because they work closely with him—that collaborative spirit for Emad extends worldwide.”  

Tajkhorshid thanked George and Tamara Mitchell for their “generosity, vision and commitment.” He added that their “contribution is invaluable to research throughout the university and [he is] very glad to be one of the groups that is benefitting from [their] contribution.”

“Most importantly, I would like to acknowledge my students, post-docs and colleagues,” Tajkhorshid said. “They are the reason I’m standing here, presenting what they have been doing for many, many years; I really appreciate and enjoy working with them.”

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Logan Weeter