Jon Mulholland honored with 2016 Marsh O’Neill Award

The director of the Cell Sciences Imaging Facility won the annual prize, which is awarded to staff members who have made outstanding contributions to Stanford's research mission.

Jon Mulholland, director of the Cell Sciences Imaging Facility, is this year’s winner of Stanford’s Marsh O’Neill Award.
L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Over the last 15 years, Jon Mulholland has transformed the Cell Sciences Imaging Facility into a world-class center by working tirelessly to keep Stanford at the leading edge of the revolution in technological advances in light and electron microscopy.

That was one of many accolades bestowed by faculty members on Mulholland, winner of the 2016 Marsh O’Neill Award for Exceptional and Enduring Support of Stanford University’s Research Enterprise.

The award was established in honor of Marshall D. O’Neill, who worked at Stanford from 1952 to 1990, when he retired as associate director of the W.W. Hansen Laboratories. He was the first recipient of the award.

When Mulholland became director of the imaging facility in 2001, it had two confocal microscopes and an annual budget of less than $165,000. Today, its technologies include advanced light microscopy, electron microscopy and scanning microscopy, and its budget exceeds $1 million.

Lucy Shapiro, PhD, professor of developmental biology and director of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, described Mullholland’s decision to take the helm of the imaging center in 2001 as “a turning point” that has benefited the entire Stanford community.

“Jon’s professional, collaborative and innovative approach to working with faculty, staff and trainees has benefited the entire research community, brought in numerous federal shared-equipment grants, and enabled the expansion of the facility beyond the Beckman Center into additional dedicated space in the School of Engineering,” Shapiro said.

She said Mulholland also dedicated “an extraordinary amount of time and resources” to training faculty, postdoctoral scholars, technicians, and graduate and undergraduate students in advanced microscopy techniques in courses, guest lectures and hands-on demos.

The facility has two sites — one at the School of Medicine’s Beckman Center and another in the Shriram Center at the School of Engineering — and an expert staff of five people: two electron microscopy specialists, a light microscopy specialist, an array tomography specialist and an imaging specialist who also manages the facility’s satellite site in the School of Engineering.

The facility serves 400 researchers working in 30 departments in the schools of Medicine, of Engineering and of Humanities and Sciences. Its team conducts more than 150 training sessions a year for faculty, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students. Since taking the helm, Mulholland has brought $7.4 million in grant funding to the facility.

Trained as a molecular biologist

Mulholland, who grew up in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and philosophy at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. After graduating, he joined the lab of David Botstein, PhD, a pioneer of modern human genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he gained experience in molecular biology and genetics, as well as in light and electron microscopy. For Mulholland, the job was meant to be a means to an end — a stepping stone to becoming a pharmaceutical sales representative. But working alongside Botstein and other scientists doing groundbreaking research set him on a new career path.

Then I realized — yeah, I really am having fun.

One day, Botstein asked him if he was having fun.

“It really took me aback,” Mulholland said, recalling a seminal conversation that took place 30 years ago. “Having fun? I mean, this is work. Then I realized — yeah, I really am having fun.”

Later, when Botstein was considering moving across the country to California to become vice president of science at Genentech, he asked Mulholland if he wanted to join him.

“Absolutely,” Mulholland replied.

At Genentech, Mulholland set up Botstein’s lab and helped establish the company’s new electron microscopy facility. Later, he moved with Botstein to Stanford’s Genetics Department and continued doing research there, using yeast genetics and electron and fluorescence microscopy. While working for Botstein, Mulholland went back to school, earning a master’s degree in cell & molecular biology at San Francisco State University.

“The research component for my thesis was what I was already working on at Stanford, so it was a joint master’s program,” he said. “It really worked out well.”

When Botstein became director of a genomic institute at Princeton University, Mulholland decided to remain at Stanford. When the position at the Cell Sciences Imaging Facility opened up, faculty members at the Beckman Center encouraged him to apply.

“It was a huge step for me,” Mulholland said. “At that time I was working at the bench, doing research and writing papers. I took care of David’s lab in terms of keeping things up and running, but I wasn’t in charge of everything.”

As director of the facility, a service center that must recover its operating costs, Mulholland is an imaging expert and scientist as well as a business manager, supervisor, budget chief and grant writer.

“Setting up, expanding and operating the imaging facility has been, and continues to be, one of the most challenging and at the same time the most satisfying thing I have done,” Mulholland said. “I feel very fortunate to be in a position that supports the research of so many outstanding scientists.”

‘A treasure’

Margaret Fuller, PhD, a professor of developmental biology and of genetics and of obstetrics and gynecology, described Mulholland as “a treasure.” She said one of Mulholland’s most important contributions was his proactive leadership role in bringing the most cutting-edge imaging technology to Stanford.

“Jon is constantly abreast, indeed ahead of the game, in the latest technical advances in microscopy, and he works tirelessly and with much advance planning to make sure that we have the instruments to apply these new developments to our work,” she said.

Fuller said Mulholland’s hard work, organizational talents, deep technical knowledge and forward-looking planning have supported and catalyzed the research programs of many faculty, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students.

Alexander Dunn, PhD, an associate professor of chemical engineering, said Mulholland and his team keep the facility’s complex equipment in excellent working order, with little down time. He said the team has greatly contributed to the education of several generations of graduate students.

“In part this stems from a real passion for the research itself,” Dunn said. “Jon is wonderfully curious about any biological and technical problem you set before him. My personal experience is that he will work tirelessly to get researchers the data they need, even if it means substantially rebuilding an instrument, or staying up late at night to get a tricky experiment to work. This kind of passion and dedication is very rare.”

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