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NU biochemist dies at age 55

Jonathan Widom, the William Deering Professor of Molecular Biosciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, died Monday of an apparent heart attack. He was 55.

Jonathan Widom, the William Deering Professor of Molecular Biosciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, died Monday of an apparent heart attack. He was 55.

Also the principal investigator of Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, Widom focused on how DNA is packaged into chromosomes — and the location of nucleosomes specifically. Colleagues said the work has had profound implications for how genes are able to be read in the cell and how mutations outside of the regions that encode proteins can lead to errors and disease.

“Jon was a wonderful colleague who did everything with great enthusiasm — research, teaching, cooking, attending operas — and he did everything extremely well,” said Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer. “He leaves a tremendous void in our lives and in our university.”

Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, which Widom led, is one of 12 established nationwide in 2009 by the National Cancer Institute. The center brings together physical scientists and cancer biologists to use non-traditional, physical sciences-based approaches to understand and control cancer.

In June, a two-day symposium sponsored by the center brought internationally renowned scholars to Northwestern to share insights about rethinking approaches to the war on cancer. They came together “inspired by the knowledge that a new understanding of cancer is necessary to secure a conclusion to what has been a difficult and prolonged war,” Mr. Widom said last month.

Widom’s recent work focused on developing a unified framework to explain how changes in cell state or development can influence nucleosome positions and, conversely, how nucleosome positions can influence cell state and development.

“Jon was able to seamlessly blend the biological questions he so passionately pursued with his broad background in chemical principles and quantitative analysis,” said colleague Kelly E. Mayo, chair of the department of molecular biosciences.

“His contributions to the fields of chromatin packaging and gene regulation are unquestioned and are reflected in his outstanding international reputation,” Mayo said.

Earlier this year the University honored Widom for his important research contributions with the Martin E. and Gertrude G. Walder Award for Research Excellence.

“We will sorely miss Jonathan’s many contributions to the college and his field at large,” Weinberg Dean Sarah C. Mangelsdorf said. “He was a distinguished researcher and valued colleague.”

Widom received his B.A. in chemistry from Cornell University in 1977 and earned his doctorate in biochemistry from Stanford University in 1982. He spent two years at the University of Cambridge on a postdoctoral fellowship before joining the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he was an assistant professor from 1985 to 1991.

Widom is survived by his parents, Ben and Joanne, of Ithaca, NY, and a brother and a sister. Burial will be private but condolences may be sent to: The Widom Family, 204 The Parkway, Ithaca, NY 14850.

The department of molecular biosciences will organize a scientific symposium to celebrate Widom’s life and accomplishments. The event will be held during the upcoming academic year; details are forthcoming.

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