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Song Tan selected as Holder of the Verne M. Willaman Chair in Molecular Biology
9 October 2020
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Song Tan

Song Tan, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and director of the Center for Eukaryotic Gene Regulation, has been appointed as Holder of the Verne M. Willaman Chair in Molecular Biology. The appointment, effective on July 1, was made by the Office of the President of the University, based on the recommendation of the dean, in recognition of Tan’s national and international reputation for excellence in research and teaching.

Tan's research uses structural and biochemical methods to understand how genes are switched on and off in our cells. He uses X-ray crystallography and cryoelectron microscopy to determine the three-dimensional structures of large chromatin complexes—the assembly of proteins and DNA that make up chromosomes—that are involved in eukaryotic gene regulation. Tan's lab was the first to determine the atomic structure of a chromatin protein bound to the nucleosome, the fundamental component of chromatin, and also was the first to determine the crystal structure of a chromatin enzyme in the act of regulating a gene's expression on a nucleosome. Chromatin enzymes are critical for controlling normal processes in a cell and mutations in chromatin enzymes are closely associated with a wide variety of cancers. Tan's groundbreaking work not only provides insight into fundamental genetic processes, but also provides a framework for understanding human diseases and for modeling new medicines to fight those diseases.

In addition, Tan and his laboratory have created and distributed reagents to facilitate research in the scientific community. Tan developed methods and reagents to simplify the production of complexes of proteins in bacteria. In a recent project, undergraduate researchers in his laboratory devised a simple system to make DNA ladders (used as molecular rulers or size markers) for a fraction of the cost of other available methods. This system has been distributed to over 400 laboratories in more than 40 countries on 6 continents.  

“I am humbled and honored to receive the Verne M. Willaman Chair in Molecular Biology,” said Tan. “This honor is particularly personal because the first holder of this chair, Bob Simpson was a mentor to me. I will strive to live up to his high standards.”

Tan received a Penn State Faculty Scholar Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Life and Health Sciences in 2015 and also was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2015. His previous awards and honors include the C.I. Noll Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Eberly College of Science Alumni Society in 2014, the Penn State Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Tershak Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award in 2002, and being named the first Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences at Penn State in 2001.

Tan joined the faculty at Penn State in 1998 as an assistant professor and earned promotion to associate professor in 2004 and professor in 2011. Prior to his arrival at Penn State, Tan was a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich. He earned his bachelor's degree in physics at Cornell University in 1985 and his doctoral degree in molecular biology as a Marshall Scholar at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the University of Cambridge, England, in 1989.