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Environmental Factor, November 2012

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Kunkel steps away from administrative role as LSB lab chief

By Shannon Duncan

Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D.

Kunkel has been praised as one of the major intellectual drivers of LSB, who also possesses excellent managerial and leadership skills. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Traci Hall, Ph.D.

LSB Acting Chief Hall (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Lead researcher Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D., left his administrative leadership role as chief of the NIEHS Laboratory of Structural Biology (LSB) Oct. 1, a position he has held since the lab was established in 1996, to devote himself full time to research as head of the DNA Replication Fidelity Group. Darryl Zeldin, M.D., NIEHS scientific director, announced the news by thanking Kunkel for his leadership and service to the Division of Intramural Research, and congratulating lead researcher Traci Hall, Ph.D., on her selection as acting chief of LSB.

Of his appointed successor and colleague of 14 years, Kunkel said, “Traci is going to do a fabulous job.”

Expanding a network of support services for LSB scientists

During his 16-year tenure as lab chief, Kunkel has seen the lab grow to include resource facilities to help provide further insight into how environmental exposures impact human health. LSB uses an integrated approach to investigate macromolecular structures at the atomic level, by combining biochemical and genetic approaches in conjunction with the lab’s core research facilities.

Kunkel came to NIEHS on May 3, 1982. Over his more than three decades of research on DNA replication, he has published more than 300 papers in peer-reviewed journals, mentored an impressive group of accomplished scientists, and received a number of prestigious awards for his research. He has also served on several committees, including the Tenure Track Advisory Committee.

In 2011, Kunkel was promoted to the rank of Distinguished Investigator, one of the highest honors the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards to its scientists and one that only an estimated two to three percent of NIH scientists ever achieve during their careers. He has developed several novel experimental approaches for investigating DNA replication and is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts in the field.

Under Kunkel’s leadership, LSB became one of the first labs to enact the dual mentoring program, to help postdoctoral fellows network and seek advice from different scientists and professions, so they can become more competitive in a changing job market. Over the years, he has maintained an open door policy as a mentor and helped his postdocs transition into a variety of occupations, including teaching, scientific administration, and basic and clinical research.

Reflecting on his lab's many accomplishments and talented members, Kunkel singled out the outstanding administrative support provided by Amy Johnson over the years, which has helped everyone be more successful, by allowing lab members to focus solely on their science. He said that he considers her to be the most valuable employee in the lab.

Looking to the future of LSB

Hall has been the head of the Macromolecular Structure Group since arriving at NIEHS in 1998. She came to NIEHS with a doctorate in pharmacology and molecular sciences from John Hopkins University, after completing a two-year fellowship at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In 2004, she achieved tenure and continues to lead her group in studying RNA pathways and the impact they have on environmental health, by understanding gene response and susceptibility to environmental stressors. She served as president of the NIEHS Assembly of Scientists in 2010 and has also served on the Scientific Director's Advisory Committee.

When asked about her upcoming role, Hall responded, “I am looking forward to helping NIEHS to continue our outstanding science and to grow in new directions.”

(Shannon Duncan is an administrative technician in the NIEHS Laboratory of Structural Biology.)

Overview of Laboratory of Structural Biology (LSB)

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