Ruth Lehmann became director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in July 2020. That juncture was deep enough into the pandemic for the research hub to be gradually reopening after a March 20 shutdown, but the center affiliated with nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology is still adapting to life with Covid-19. The institute has improved air circulation, made entrances hands-free, added regular coronavirus testing for employees, and modified the cafeteria for in-house “takeout” meals. About 80% of scientists have returned to their labs to work in socially distanced shifts, administrative staff mostly work from home, and Lehmann spends much of her time in her institute office on Zoom calls.
A noted cell biologist who moved her lab from New York University to Cambridge, Mass., Lehmann promotes basic science as the driving force behind the extraordinary advances leading to rapidly developed Covid-19 vaccines. She also laments the toll the pandemic has taken on women in science. In a conversation with STAT, Lehmann charts the institute’s way forward, explains her own science, and shares two things people might not know about the Whitehead. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.