Funding Science at the Molecular Level to Decipher Dementia
Monumental advances in basic science are often the result of successful collaborations. These partnerships regularly occur between researchers, but in many instances, they also flourish between a researcher and a donor. A collaboration sure to produce pioneering advances in molecular biology is the one between Professor Jiou Wang, MD, PhD ’02, and philanthropist Elizabeth Walder, president and executive director of the Walder Foundation.
With generous support from the Foundation, the Bloomberg School created the Walder Foundation Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. It is the first time that the Foundation has funded an endowed professorship and the first professorship in the Department. Wang is the inaugural recipient.
The Walder Foundation is a Chicago-area family foundation, established by Elizabeth, who received a BA in 1982 from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and her husband Joseph, to fund initiatives with a local focus and global impact. The Foundation’s five areas of focus—science innovation, environmental sustainability, the performing arts, migration and immigrant communities, and Jewish life—are an extension of the Walders’ lifelong passions, interests, and personal and professional experiences.
As a leader, Walder believes in the power of collaboration, of opening doors for diverse voices and ideas. Seeking to fund breakthrough science that has the potential to improve millions of lives, Walder turned to her alma mater, a university with a history of excellence in medical and scientific research.
In 2018, Walder connected with associate professor Scott Bailey, having learned about his lab’s impressive CRISPR research . She recognized that supporting his curiosity would lead to valuable scientific insights. Then, in 2023, the pioneering work of Professor Wang, a world leader in neurodegenerative diseases research, caught her attention. When she discovered that they both have loved ones affected by neurodegenerative disease—including Walder’s 100-year-old father, who is living with Alzheimer’s—she was eager to champion a cause close to her heart.
“I was impressed with Jiou’s seminal discoveries, his collaborative approach, and his willingness to take on a leadership role in everything he does,” Walder says.
Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, are among the greatest public health challenges of our time. To develop strategies that could lead to new treatments, Wang is asking questions that get to the root of these diseases at the cellular level: What controls the birth and death of a protein? How do the shapes of DNA and RNA control their functions? And how do errors in these processes connect the causes and effects of neurodegenerative diseases—within cells and in the lives of patients?
An expert in biochemistry, genetics, and cell biology, Wang, over the last quarter century, has expanded on his groundbreaking research, working to discover the fundamental principles of what causes proteins to misfold, how that changes their role in the cell, and the ways cells can counter the toxic effects of these misfolded proteins. In another breakthrough discovery, Wang uncovered a mechanism by which the gene mutation linked to the most common type of ALS and to frontotemporal dementia leads to cellular defects associated with the diseases.
At the November ceremony officially installing Wang as the Walder Foundation Distinguished Professor, Walder spoke of other “threads” that connect her and Wang—including their shared academic journeys at Johns Hopkins and their continued dedication to diversity and inclusion.
“The Johns Hopkins faculty bent over backwards to accommodate me and allowed me to follow my dreams in so many ways,” she said of her undergraduate years. “They set up an independent study for me in Modern Greek Politics … they let me take time off to pursue my love of music and to study classical saxophone at Peabody Conservatory … and they arranged for me to spend my senior year studying in Greece. To this day, I am incredibly grateful for the University’s supportive, flexible approach.”
Just as Walder thrived at Johns Hopkins because the University gave her the support she needed to pursue her goals and passions, so has Wang. Walder is pleased that the professorship will afford Wang and his research team the opportunity to continue its pathbreaking work.
“The support provided by the Walder Foundation Distinguished Professorship not only empowers me to take risks, but also reinforces the importance of pushing the boundaries of knowledge,” Wang says. “It also offers more students the opportunity to engage in exciting, high-stakes projects, nurturing their creativity and fostering a spirit of scientific adventure.”
After completing her degree at Johns Hopkins, Walder graduated from Case Western University Law School and opened a legal practice focused on immigration and consular law, a complex field that brings families together while also introducing U.S. employers to the international talent they need to build their businesses. In 1999, she joined her husband at his company, Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT), which was catching that era’s wave of genomic revolution. It was her idea to secure J-1 Trainee Visa designation through the Department of State, enabling IDT to sponsor scientists from around the world to come to the U.S. Wang’s engagement with the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Diversity and Inclusion Committee at the Bloomberg School and his efforts to support foreign-born researchers at Hopkins impressed Walder.
“Your immigration journey, from an F-1 student in graduate school through to permanent resident status, resonates with my career as an immigration attorney supporting scientists of outstanding ability,” she said at the ceremony, speaking to Wang. “We both recognize the promise and potential of these trainees.”
When asked to summarize the importance of endowed professorships, Walder referenced the sentiments of another Johns Hopkins endowed professor, David Yaden, the inaugural recipient of the Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Professorship Fund in Psychedelic Research on Secular Spirituality: “It’s a life-altering opportunity that gives incredible peace of mind,” he told me. “You no longer have to worry about raising funds for your salary.”
Endowing a professorship provides researchers at the top of their fields with the freedom to take risks and pursue what they believe will be the most impactful research. “This freedom often spawns new collaborations and breakthrough results. And that is why this gift is truly transformative,” Walder says.
Tracey Palmer is a freelance writer for the Office of External Affairs at the Bloomberg School. For more information about supporting the School’s research, please contact Heath Elliott, associate dean for Development and Alumni Relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org.