Lilian Hsu

Citation for 2009 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Scholarship

Lilian arrived at Mount Holyoke College in 1981, as the first faculty member hired as a biochemist.  Her expertise immediately strengthened the powerful interdisciplinary program.

After receiving a B.A. in Biology from Douglass College of Rutgers University, Lilian went on to the University of Michigan where she earned her Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry.  Immediately following the doctorate, she held not one, not two, but three postdoctoral positions, one at the University of Michigan, one at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, and the last with Maurille Fournier at UMass.  This reflects both the sheer amount of training needed to succeed in her highly interdisciplinary and highly technical field and our good fortune in being the right place at the right time. Since 2001, Lilian has been the Elizabeth Page Greenawalt Professor of Biochemistry. 

Lilian studies gene regulation and transcription in the bacterium E.coli. Transcription of protein-coding genes is a fundamental life process.  Lilian currently investigates the biochemical mechanisms involved in the phenomenon known as “promoter escape”. This is the end of the beginning of transcription, the stage when RNA polymerase must start to let go of its hold on promoter DNA and proceed along the gene to transcribe it.  The “escape” process turns out to be not only highly complicated, but quite variable. In some parts of the chromosome, it is far easier for RNA polymerase to be released from the promoter region, while in others, the release process is longer and more complicated. The ease and speed of release strongly affects the overall rate of transcription initiation, and is therefore of great importance in gene regulation.  In addition to her basic research papers, many with students, that have contributed essential details to the current understanding of promoter escape, Lilian has written two luminous reviews of the phenomenon as a whole that have done much to make the biochemical community aware of the geometric conformation of RNA polymerase and the role it plays in escape.

Lilian’s funding record is well beyond exemplary – it is phenomenal.  In her first year here, she received a Research Corporation grant, and has not looked back.  Her series of grants has covered every year since her arrival at Mount Holyoke College, and her current grant from the National Science Foundation runs from 2009 through 2012.  She also has a strong connection to UC Berkeley, where she has spent three extended stays; one as Sabbatical Researcher, one as visiting Associate Professor, and one as Visiting Researcher.  Fortunately, she has found her way back home to us every time.

Lilian is more than a world-class biochemist:  she is an extraordinarily effective teacher. Terms like “awesome”, “amazing” and “absolutely brilliant” abound in her student evaluations. So do “really caring”, “very open to questions” and “always available, always welcoming”. She has an exceptional record of bringing her students to present their results at conferences around the United States. In the last decade, she has had 19 undergraduate co-authors.

Lilian’s service to the college is also off the charts. In addition to anchoring, and often chairing, biochemistry, she chaired the chemistry department during a particular crucial time and has served as the college’s sponsored research officer. She has been on a number of delicate college committees.  No one would use the word “shy” in connection with Lilian. She is forceful and wise. And all of us are the richer for having this superb research scientist and caring, rigorous and effective teacher as a member of our community. She is indeed an especially deserving recipient of the Meribeth E. Cameron scholarship award.