March 22, 2011 — Former colleagues, faculty, students, staff and family members of the late Armen H. Tashjian, Jr., professor of toxicology, emeritus, and former chair of what is now the School’s Department of Genetics and Complex Diseases, gathered March 1, 2011 at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) to honor his memory and many accomplishments.
Tashjian passed away in 2009 at age 77. He led the School’s toxicology program for nearly three decades. As the founding chair of what was then called the Department of Molecular and Cellular Toxicology, he was a pioneer in demonstrating the importance of understanding the molecular mechanisms of toxicity of environmental chemicals and therapeutic agents. He made seminal contributions in the area of endocrinology and mechanisms of hormone action, contributing to a life-saving test for a pre-cancerous condition associated with inherited thyroid cancer and playing a key role in the development of two drugs for the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis. He was a devoted teacher, mentoring nearly 100 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
Manning honored to receive inaugural award
To honor his legacy, family and friends established the Armen H. Tashjian Jr. Award for Excellence in Endocrine Research to assist young faculty and fellows at HSPH to pursue innovative research ideas in basic biomedical sciences. The first recipient of the Tashjian Research Award is Brendan D. Manning, associate professor of genetics and complex diseases at HSPH.
“It’s really an honor to receive this inaugural award,” said Manning, in his talk, “Connecting Cancer to Metabolism Through a Nutrient Sensing Signaling Network.” “I did not have a chance to meet Armen, but I was ‘blown away’ when I read his papers about signaling done at a time when the field was quite difficult to study, lacking many of the tools we have today,” he said.
Manning discussed his research on how cells sense and respond to nutrients and environmental stressors like temperature and toxins, and what triggers cells to become cancerous or insulin-resistant, as in type 2 diabetes. “We’ve made tremendous progress in large part to people like Armen on how cells sense and respond to their environment,” Manning said. However, he said, much remains to be learned about how cells grow, proliferate, live, or die.
‘A true intellectual powerhouse’
Speakers at the event, which was held in Snyder Auditorium, fondly remembered Tashjian. “Armen was unusual in many different ways,” said Gökhan S. Hotamisligil, J.S. Simmons Professor of Genetics and Metabolism, and chair, Department of Genetics and Complex Diseases. “Armen has been a major force in the development of the basic science program and its incorporation in the fabric of public health at the School. In many ways it’s because of his vision that we are here today,” he said.
Hotamisligil described Tashjian as a “spectacular mentor and teacher, a true intellectual powerhouse, a prolific scientist in so many different domains—from pharmacology, toxicology, endocrinology, to pituitary disease,” he said. “He liked to do odd things very properly and vigorously. He loved to talk and he was very entertaining and engaging. Even more than talking, he listened enthusiastically. His was the first door on which I knocked when I had a problem. He was funny, very serious and resourceful. His interest and love for students was genuine and he was loved,” he continued.
David Golan, professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology and dean for graduate education at Harvard Medical School and a longtime friend of Tashjian’s, recalled his tremendous spirit and infectious enthusiasm. “Armen was someone who sat in the first row and asked the most difficult questions of the presenter–whether they were a student or professor. He was never satisfied with a superficial answer. He always wanted to get at the mechanisms and molecular details on how things worked. We always learned from his questions.”