Lila Gierasch holds the position of Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Gierasch graduated summa cum laude from Mount Holyoke College with a major in chemistry.
As a South Hadley native, Gierasch received a “townie” scholarship to Mount Holyoke. She says, though, that she chose to go there because of its tradition and reputation in science. In addition, her mother, Marian Bookhout Gierasch ’32, is an MHC alum.
Gierasch spent the summer after her junior year working in a lab at Harvard University. While there, she attended the International Union of Biophysics Congress at MIT and says she was “completely won over” as she listened to “the founding fathers of biophysics” speak. She decided then to pursue graduate studies in biophysical chemistry.
After earning a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1975, Gierasch held faculty positions at Amherst College and the University of Delaware in chemistry, and at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in pharmacology. In 1994 she joined the faculty of University of Massachusetts at Amherst as head and professor of the chemistry department.
In 2006, Gierasch won the American Chemical Society’s prestigious Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal. The prize, established in 1936 to recognize distinguished service to chemistry by women chemists, has also been awarded to three other Mount Holyoke women. Mount Holyoke chemistry professor Emma Perry Carr, who attended MHC as an undergraduate, won the first Garvan-Olin medal ever awarded, in 1937. Mount Holyoke chemistry professors Mary Lura Sherrill and Lucy W. Pickett ’25 won the medal in 1947 and 1957, respectively. In naming Gierasch as the 2006 medal recipient, the ACS cited her for “her vision of the central role of chemistry in understanding biological phenomena and her persuasive leadership in transforming both the local and national institutions in which she works.”
At UMass, Gierasch maintains an active research career, focusing on protein folding, which has been linked to major diseases, including Alzheimer’s and cystic fibrosis. Her research is currently being funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health. Gierasch, who has published more than 190 papers, is the recipient of the Sloan and Guggenheim Fellowships, as well as many other fellowships and awards. She remains committed to breaking down barriers for women scientists and encouraging interdisciplinary research.