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Private Foundation Invests $9 Million in the Pioneering Research of a UVA Health Scientist

Jochen Zimmer, PhD, professor of molecular physiology and biomedical physics at the UVA School of Medicine, has been named an Investigator by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the nation’s largest private biomedical research institution.

Researchers who achieve this honor — considered among the highest a biomedical scientist can achieve — have the potential to radically change how we think about biology, human health, and disease. For example, 32 current or former HHMI Investigators have won the Nobel Prize.

Zimmer is one of just 33 scientists selected to receive the honor out of more than 800 applicants nationwide. He is the second HHMI investigator from UVA.

Developing Biomaterials for Medicines, Food, & Energy 

Recognition from HHMI is significant because of its philosophy to fund “people, not projects.” Each new investigator will receive roughly $9 million over a seven-year term, which is renewable pending a successful scientific review. By not having a particular project funded, Zimmer will have the freedom and flexibility to pursue whatever research projects he wishes in a manner of his choosing.

Zimmer’s research interests include the transport of biopolymers across biological membranes. (Learn more about the Zimmer Lab.) His research to understand how cells work may one day help scientists develop new biomaterials for medicines, food, and energy — potentially offering solutions to combat disease, fight hunger, and reduce the effects of climate change.

“Our research focuses on complex carbohydrates and how they are synthesized and deposited on the cell surface,” Zimmer says. “Using the tools of structural and molecular biology, we study capsule and biofilm formation in bacteria, cell wall biosynthesis in plants, and extracellular matrix formation in vertebrates.”

Zimmer and his collaborators have published their findings in the world’s most respected scientific journals, including Science and Nature.

Proud to Extend Global Reach of Life-Saving Research

K. Craig Kent, MD, Chief Executive Officer of UVA Health and UVA’s Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, joined Melina Kibbe, MD, Dean of the UVA School of Medicine and UVA Health’s Chief Health Affairs Officer, in expressing “incredible pride” in Zimmer’s recognition from HHMI.

“By dedicating himself to the pursuit and expansion of knowledge, Jochen represents the best of the UVA School of Medicine and the global reach of our life-saving research. This achievement exemplifies all the excellent research happening at UVA Health and our growth as one of the nation's top academic health systems,” they wrote in a statement. “This is an amazing accomplishment.”

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