The College of Science’s J. Mark Sowers Distinguished Lecture Series will host its first live, in-person talk since fall 2019 on Sept. 29.

The lecture will feature Ron Vale, who is vice president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and executive director of its Janelia Research Campus, located in Ashburn, Virginia. Vale will discuss “The World’s Smallest Machines,” an inside look at how the cells found in every living creature have incredibly intricate moving parts that operate similarly to robots. Vale is also a professor emeritus of the University of California, San Francisco’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology.

The talk will be presented at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 29 at Holtzman Alumni Center Auditorium on the Virginia Tech campus and via Zoom webinar. Registration is required. It is free and open to the public.

Describing his talk, Vale said, “Look around at living organisms. What do you see? They are moving. Birds fly, lions pounce, and football players dash across the field. Movement is a fundamental property of biological organisms. Now look under a microscope. Pond water is full of unicellular organisms that swim and twirl in all directions. Let’s crank up the magnification further and look inside of a cell. Tiny packets of building blocks called organelles are moving everywhere, functioning like cargo trucks that deliver goods within a city. Even the yeast that make beer has to move their DNA when they divide.”

He added, “I will discuss the molecular motors [that] drive biological motion. These motors drive muscle contraction, the beating of cilia in your lungs and flagella of sperm, and the movement of materials inside of cells. I will tell you about my discovery of one of these machines, called kinesin, describe how these machines work, and discuss why they are important for medicine and biotechnology.”

Daniela Cimini, a professor with the Department of Biological Sciences, part of the College of Science, invited Vale to visit as Sowers lecturer.  “We owe a lot of what we know about molecular motors and how they function to Ron’s work,” Cimini said. “One of Ron’s strengths as a scientist has been his ability to use a broad spectrum of approaches, from biochemistry to cell biology to physics. 

Vale received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University in 1985, was a Staff Fellow with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), stationed at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hall, Massachusetts, from 1985 to 1986. He began his faculty appointment in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco, in 1987.

He has worked collaboratively with many people and organizations to make science more easily accessible to the broader scientific community, as well as the public, Cimini added.

Vale founded iBiology, a nonprofit organization that produces videos of scientific talks by leading scientists and makes them freely available to the public. Vale also founded XBio (The Explorer’s Guide to Biology), a new type of learning resource of undergraduate biology. He also founded ASAPbio, a nonprofit organization, to improve scientific publishing in the life sciences.

Additionally, he co-founded the biotech companies Cytokinetics, Faze, and Myeloid Therapeutics.

Other ventures he started include IndiaBioscience, a networking organization for the life sciences in India, and the annual Young Investigator Meeting for young Indian scientists. He previously co-directed the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Physiology Course for five years and founded/directed the Bangalore Microscopy Course.

Among his awards and honors are the Canada Gairdner International Award, the Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research, the Shaw Prize in Life Sciences, the Massry Prize, the Wiley Prize, and the Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the European Molecular Biology Organization, and the Indian National Science Academy.

The J. Mark Sowers Distinguished Lecture Series at the College of Science at Virginia Tech is a forum for the exchange of new and innovative ideas in scientific fields. In all, there have been 15 lectures, held in person and virtually, since the series began in February 2017.

Generously supported by Mark and Debi Sowers, this series provides opportunities for the university community and general public to interact with and learn from eminent scholars and industry experts.

Sowers is a Richmond, Virginia-based businessman and developer and longtime supporter of the College of Science. He sponsors the series to share with others his fascination with the sciences, in particular, the physical sciences.