Distinguished physician-scientist takes the helm of Frost Institute

Mark Yeager is the inaugural executive director of the University of Miami’s Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami
By Maya Bell

Mark Yeager is the inaugural executive director of the University of Miami’s Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Distinguished physician-scientist takes the helm of Frost Institute

By Maya Bell
Trained as a chemist, biophysicist, internist, and cardiologist, Mark Yeager is eager to propel the Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science into a leading research center.

Even in his youth Mark Yeager could picture the door to his future. Scuffed, chipped, and almost black from layers of varnish, the old, wooden door had a frosted window with five words stenciled in glossy black: “Laboratory of Dr. Mark Yeager.”

Yet Yeager, the inaugural executive director of the University of Miami’s Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science (FICMS), is quite happy that his new lab in the 94,000-square-foot building slated to open late next year won’t even have a door. The $60 million facility’s open floor plan was designed to encourage the free flow of people and ideas—and help transform the University into one of the world’s premier research centers for improving the health of humans and that of our planet. 

“That is the vision, but it’s not a fantastical vision,” said Yeager, a distinguished biophysicist and cardiologist whose top priority is attracting a diverse and elite group of scientists as the institute’s first faculty. “It is achievable, and it will happen because the University has not wavered in its commitment to elevate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to advance scientific discovery. There’s something going on here that’s organic and alive and exciting—and I’m thrilled to be part of it.” 

Yeager, whose own groundbreaking research focuses on the molecular causes of heart disease and viral infections, trained as a chemist at Carnegie-Mellon University, as a physician and biophysicist at Yale University and as an internist and cardiologist at Stanford University. He spent two decades at Scripps Research in California, where he established his first independent laboratory, served as the director of research in cardiology, and helped launch the Skaggs Clinical Scholars Program in Translational Research. He has also served as a consultant and scientific and clinical advisor to several biotech companies. 

Now he is transitioning to the University from the University of Virginia School of Medicine (UVA), where he chaired the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics for nearly a dozen years and helped establish the Sheridan G. Snyder Translational Research Building. At UVA, he also established one of the nation’s five regional centers for cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM)—the technique he advanced for flash-freezing, imaging, and studying proteins and other macromolecules in their near-natural state. 

“It is exciting to see the progress being made on the evolution of our Frost Institutes, starting with Data Science and Computing and now the emergence of Chemistry and Molecular Science. We are fortunate to have Mark overseeing our Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science and working across the entire institution—his interdisciplinary knowledge and perspective on chemistry are essential for our success,” said Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “Mark brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the University of Miami and we are looking forward to his impactful leadership continuing as we move forward.” 

Yeager said he knew he was making the right career move on his first visit to the University last November. Although the COVID-19 pandemic had curtailed in-person learning and suspended new construction, he heard the unmistakable sound of heavy equipment as he walked past the royal palms and fountain at the end of Memorial Drive, where the five-story FICMS now stands.

“I could see an excavation area and heard a cacophony of construction noise where I had a hunch the institute should be,” he recalled. “That told me that the University was all in. They had made this commitment to fortify STEM and to do transformational science and nothing was going to stop them. In spite of the pandemic, it was all systems go.”

 

The University’s longtime benefactors, Phillip and Patricia Frost, enabled that commitment in 2017, when they announced their landmark $100 million gift to establish the Frost Institutes for Science and Engineering, now a key initiative of the Roadmap to Our New Century—the strategic plan guiding the University toward its centennial mark. The umbrella organization for a group of multidisciplinary research centers patterned after the National Institutes of Health and its network of affiliated institutes, the Frost Institutes were envisioned to translate interdisciplinary research into solutions for real-world problems.

Though Yeager officially started his new role on June 1, he has been heavily involved in planning the FICMS' interior for months. He recently placed a $20 million order to equip the facility with five different electron microscopy instruments that chemists, molecular scientists, and engineers will use to explore the molecular structure of exquisitely beam-sensitive “soft” materials like proteins, “hard” materials such as metal alloys, as well as nanomaterials comprised of soft and hard components. Along with the building’s state-of-the-art technology and the University’s research infrastructure, he’s confident its location in the heart of the Coral Gables campus will help him recruit a diverse and elite group of scientists who are exploring challenging avenues of impactful research—something he has been driven to do almost his entire life. 

An occasional songwriter, guitar player, and jogger who in his younger days ran 18 marathons, Yeager was always fascinated by scientific discoveries that illuminated unknown and unseen worlds. A child of the Sputnik era who began entering science fairs in junior high, he began forging his own career as a physician-scientist while in high school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where his father, an agricultural economist, settled his family after a number of job-related moves. 

Inspired by an experiment in Scientific American magazine, he convinced physicians in the therapeutic radiology department at Penrose Hospital to irradiate his fruit flies so he could compare the effects of administering different doses of radiation on their eye pigments. Delivered in Styrofoam cups, his experiments on what is now called dose fractionation—and used to reduce tissue damage during cancer treatments—won him first place in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1967 International Science Fair and a research stint in an insect toxicology lab in Berkeley, California. 

The following summer, when Yeager returned to Penrose Hospital to work as an orderly, he realized that he loved patient care as much as laboratory research and began plotting how he could pursue both careers.

“I just got incredible satisfaction from helping patients get out of bed and into a wheelchair, transfer to a gurney, learn to use crutches,” recalled Yeager, who joins the University as one of its 100 Talents for 100 Years, a Roadmap initiative to add 100 new endowed chairs to the faculty by the University’s 2025 centennial. “But I also loved chemistry. I loved physics. I loved too many things.”

After earning his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Carnegie-Mellon, he was accepted to the Medical Scientist Training Program at Yale University, where, along with his medical degree, he earned his master’s degree and doctorate in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. There, he encountered the first of many trailblazing scientists, including two future Nobel laureates, who would influence his life’s work. His Ph.D. advisor, Lubert Stryer, was particularly influential. Stryer authored a premier textbook of biochemistry, pioneered fluorescence-based techniques to explore the motions of biological macromolecules, and made fundamental discoveries on the molecular basis of vision. Yeager’s graduate work on rhodopsin, a photoreceptor membrane protein, triggered his fascination with elucidating the molecular bases for such diseases as sudden cardiac death, heart attacks, HIV-1, and other viral infections. 

Yeager completed his medical residency and specialized fellowship training in cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University Medical Center, where he managed the pre- and post-operative care of heart transplant patients and wrote 13 chapters in the book “Handbook of Difficult Diagnoses.” 

He also continued exploring cellular biology in the laboratory of Nigel Unwin, who had collaborated with future Nobel laureate Richard Henderson to pioneer the use of cryoEM to determine the molecular structure of membrane proteins—and inspired Yeager’s groundbreaking research on gap junction channels. The electrical conduits that connect every cell in the body to its neighbor, gap junction channels play a critical role in maintaining the normal heartbeat. 

That research, which Yeager continued at Scripps and at UVA, explained how gap junction channels behave in their normal state, and during an injured state, such as a heart attack. His quest to answer another question particularly relevant today—how viruses enter host cells, replicate, and assemble infectious particles—is exemplified by his breakthrough research on the assembly, structure, and maturation of HIV-1, the virus that causes AIDS. 

Today, those insights, which Yeager humbly calls “a few bricks in the edifice of science,” hold important clues for developing new, more effective therapies to prevent HIV-1 infection, repair injured tissue, and treat cancer and cardiovascular disease—the kind of impactful research that the FICMS was designed to advance with collaborative partners across the University, and beyond.

“As a pioneer in the field of cryo-transmission electron microscopy, a forefront technology in materials and biological research, Mark’s expertise and knowledge will position the University as a leader in these cutting-edge fields,” said Leonidas Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences who served as the initial interim director of the FICMS. “We look forward to having him lead the Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science as we continue to advance the sciences, innovate, and expand research collaborations with our faculty and industry partners.”