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“manna from heaven”

How the world functions

Ask Yu-Shan Lin about teaching quantum mechanics, and she makes it sound easy. “You can wear one sweater, or two, or three,” she says, gesturing to the sweater she’s pulled over her blouse and skirt. “Never one point five sweaters.” Similarly, she explains, everything in the universe can be understood in terms of discrete units—sometimes very, very small units—and quantum mechanics explains how the world functions in accordance with those units. Simple enough, right? Then she adds with a smile, “It takes a lot of math to support.”

Luckily, crunching numbers doesn’t faze Lin, a new junior professor in chemistry who loves “doing cool math.” A self-described geek, she uses computers rather than test tubes and beakers in her lab, where she studies biological problems that are difficult to address in more traditional experiments.

“Manna from heaven”

When Lin interviewed for a position at Tufts, she seemed like a perfect fit, says Joanne Berger- Sweeney, dean of Arts and Sciences: “She’s a brilliant chemist, with unbelievably high energy, a female scientist who can be a role model to our students, someone whose research areas connect across biology, computer science, and chemistry."

But the university could not have hired Lin without the help of a fund established just months earlier. The Knez Family Faculty Investment Fund, created with a $1 million gift from the Knez Family Charitable Foundation, supports salaries, startup costs, and laboratory renovations needed for recruiting junior faculty to the School of Arts and Sciences. “The money from the Knez gift made it possible for us to hire her,” Berger-Sweeney says. “It was like manna from heaven.”

The Knez Family Fund was established by Debra Smith Knez, J82, A09P, and Brian Knez, A09P, to invest in bringing outstanding scholars and educators to Tufts and to inspire other donors to support the faculty. “As a Tufts graduate, I have always valued the caliber of the professors I had,” says Debra Smith Knez, who is a university trustee. “Tufts believes in creating a great environment for its professors, an environment in which they are passionate about their teaching and research and feel supported by the university in their work. Who benefits? The students.”

The Knez Family Fund is part of a larger Fund for Excellence in Teaching and Research dedicated to faculty recruitment, retention, research, and career development in the School of Arts and Sciences. The university may expand the fund to other schools in the future.

The brain as kitchen

The latest recruit, Lin—sitting among boxes still not unpacked three months after her arrival—speaks rapidly as she describes her work with proteins. “The proteins are like different furniture in a house,” she says. Think of a sink or a refrigerator: The structure of each is related to its function. When disease affects the system, it’s as if the factory stops making the right appliances—the body stops producing the proteins needed for it to function smoothly.

In the case of Alzheimer’s, Lin says, “The kitchen is now your brain.” And junk is accumulating there. One hypothesis for the progression of the disease is that “when you are young, you take the trash out regularly, but as you get older, it piles up.” But if you have a certain mutation, you make trash faster. “At age thirty or forty, it starts to overwhelm your cleanup system.” Although her metaphors are simple, Lin’s research is anything but. It involves setting up complex computer models to simulate biological processes, trying to predict and explain what will happen.

She is completely immersed in her new job—and loving it. “My colleagues are awesome,” she says. “And I am very impressed by the quality of the students.”

Make a gift

To learn more about the Fund for Excellence in Teaching and Research, including how you can support it, contact Jo Wellins, senior director of University Advancement, at 617.627.5906 or