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Carolyn Bertozzi and Lily Sarafan stand together in front of Chem_h

Gift accelerates transformative molecular research and renames Stanford ChEM-H

Sarafan ChEM-H will advance molecular discoveries in benefit of human health.

Sarafah Chem-H Logo

Stanford researchers bridging medicine, engineering, and basic science will ramp up the pace of molecular discovery focused on human health thanks to a foundational gift from university trustee Lily Sarafan, BS ’03, MS ’03. In recognition of her investment, Stanford ChEM-H is changing its name to Sarafan ChEM-H, which stands for Chemistry, Engineering, and Medicine for Human Health.

Sarafan’s investment will expand research in complex fields such as cancer, vaccines, immunology, the microbiome, and the molecular mechanisms of aging; help fund student training programs; and attract new faculty. It will also support the ChEM-H Knowledge Centers, which are state-of-the-art shared laboratories designed to accelerate translational research in biomedical science.

Sarafan ChEM-H, launched in 2013, actively engages more than 200 faculty, postdocs, and students from across Stanford to uncover how individual molecules behave in the body and how those behaviors change with disease.

“Sarafan ChEM-H is fueling critical new knowledge about our health and about diseases that have long afflicted humankind,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “Lily Sarafan’s gift will accelerate the work of the scientists, engineers, and clinicians who are collaborating to make new discoveries about health and disease and to translate those discoveries into novel treatments. We are so grateful to Lily for sharing our vision and helping ChEM-H realize its potential.”

Carolyn Bertozzi, the Baker Family director of Sarafan ChEM-H, said the gift will enable its researchers to drive science forward faster by removing barriers that have traditionally isolated disciplines and by training students to collaborate in new ways across biology, chemistry, medicine, and engineering.

“From the beginning, it was clear that this institute would be unlike any other in the world,” said Bertozzi, who is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “We have successfully recruited extraordinary faculty and graduate students to Stanford because ChEM-H supports exciting cross-disciplinary research that can’t be done anywhere else. Lily’s generosity will help ChEM-H continue to shift the culture of academic research at the university and advance scientific knowledge for the benefit of humankind.”

Over the past nine years, Sarafan ChEM-H has partnered with Stanford’s schools and departments to recruit 17 nationally renowned faculty advancing molecular science. It has launched an interdisciplinary graduate training program and has opened a purpose-built facility to foster collaboration across labs and disciplines. Its Knowledge Centers offer unparalleled access to professional scientists and specialized instrumentation not available in individual labs and departments.

Sarafan said her gift was inspired by ChEM-H’s open, cross-disciplinary structure, its proven record of success, and Bertozzi’s leadership.

“ChEM-H represents a new kind of flexible research model – one that successfully bridges theory and practice to speed up the translation of basic science into applied discoveries,” Sarafan said. “As a passionate supporter of the life sciences and a longtime admirer of Carolyn, I’m inspired by the way ChEM-H emphasizes diversity of all forms to recruit and train a new generation of entrepreneurial researchers. It will take a broad range of disciplines, experiences, and people to maximize the impact of world-class science on human health.”

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Discovering better ways to fight disease

Scientists at Sarafan ChEM-H are advancing innovative research on the microbiome, the molecular mechanisms of aging, vaccines and immunology, cancer, and more.

Sarafan, who was elected to Stanford’s Board of Trustees in 2020, is co-founder, executive chair, and former chief executive of TheKey, as well as a board director for several other corporate and non-profit organizations.

She also is the founding partner of Project BIG, the Stanford Brain Immune Gut research initiative, led by Jeffrey Dunn, the Lily Sarafan Director of Neuroimmunology and clinical professor, neurology and neurological sciences.

Sarafan joined the university’s life sciences council in 2020, helping to advise and support faculty leaders of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, Stanford Bio-X, and ChEM-H.

She also is a member of the LEAD Council (Lifelong Engagement and Advocacy for Development), the Freeman-Spogli Institute council, the undergraduate education cabinet, and a previous member of the Stanford Alumni Association board of directors. Outside of Stanford, Sarafan serves as a member of the California governor’s Alzheimer’s Task Force and works in leadership roles to advance economic development, civic engagement, and precision health.

A focus on team science

Since its launch in 2013, Sarafan ChEM-H has recruited top scientists focused on interdisciplinary discovery. As science becomes increasingly complex and team-based, the Knowledge Centers at Sarafan ChEM-H provide expanded access to shared research labs for teams of faculty, students, and postdocs. Engineers, clinicians, and scientists use the centers’ advanced equipment and partner with professional staff scientists who guide experiments and provide hands-on training.

These centers, most of which are located in the Stanford ChEM-H Building, offer in-house expertise not available at individual labs. The center for medicinal chemistry, for example, assists researchers in synthesizing compounds for drug discovery by providing access to high-end instrumentation and expertise usually found only at top pharmaceutical laboratories. Another center focusing on macromolecular structure assists researchers studying the shapes, interactions, and functions of biomolecules like proteins and nucleic acids. It offers access to SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and recently added Cryo-EM instrumentation, the most advanced technique for imaging large molecules and virus particles, including the coronavirus spike protein.


Knowledge Centers by the numbers

The Sarafan ChEM-H Knowledge Centers are part of Stanford’s Community of Shared Advanced Research Platforms and have a strong track record of supporting high-risk, high-reward science. Since launching in 2013, Knowledge Centers in medicinal chemistry, metabolomics, macromolecular structure, high-throughput screening, and protein engineering have:

  • Supported 112 researchers across campus

  • Fostered 103 collaborations

  • Resulted in 53 published research papers

  • Led to the filing of eight patents

  • Helped launch three startups outside Stanford

“The future of science is team science,” said Tim Stearns, acting dean of research and the Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor. “The Knowledge Centers demonstrate how shared platforms accelerate discovery thanks to the combination of talented people with specialized expertise, state-of-the-art equipment, and open collaboration spaces. These centers are an incredible example of how to do team science well.”

Training future scientific leaders

Sarafan ChEM-H training programs for undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs are educating a new generation of entrepreneurial scientists. Its flagship Chemistry/Biology Interface (CBI) Training Program attracts predoctoral students who want to pursue research at the intersection of chemistry, biology, engineering, and medicine. The program admits up to 15 students annually, with a focus on recruiting students from different backgrounds.


Tackling complex problems in human health

More than 50 faculty from 20 departments serve as mentors to graduate students in the Chemistry/Biology Interface (CBI) training program. This interdisciplinary approach encourages novel collaborations beyond a student’s initial area of research.

The two most recent CBI cohorts are 56 percent female and, in descending majority, include students who identify as Black, white, Asian, and Latinx. In recognition of Sarafan’s commitment to advancing diversity in science, the 2021-22 cohort are named the Sarafan Fellows.

Sarafan ChEM-H was originally founded by Chaitan Khosla, who recruited Bertozzi to help lead the pioneering institute and become his successor. Today Khosla is director of the Stanford Innovative Medicines Accelerator (IMA), a ChEM-H partnership with Stanford Medicine that is further accelerating the translation of Stanford’s research discoveries into new medicines while expanding knowledge of human biology. Through its faculty expertise and Knowledge Centers, Sarafan ChEM-H serves as a core engine of the IMA’s efforts to catalyze discovery.

“This gift is playing a pivotal role in Stanford’s vision for the future because accelerating the work of ChEM-H means accelerating the mission of the IMA,” said Khosla, who is the Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin Professor. “A decade from now, there will be stories about scientific advances launched at Sarafan ChEM-H that are impacting human health in a very real way.”

This story originally appeared in Stanford Report.