Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Claire M. Fraser, Ph.D.
MSA SC 3520-15241

Biography:

Dr. Claire M. Fraser has had a profound impact on the field of research science.  Her study and leadership in microbiology and related subjects has been groundbreaking. However, Dr. Fraser is not only a superb and influential scientist; she is an individual who cares deeply about the impact her work has on the world, choosing to study aspects of science that relate to diseases which may one day result in methods for their cures or prevention.  In her career thus far, she has written hundreds of articles, served on numerous committees, worked on several editorial boards, as well as served as the head of two leading research institutions. As Paul Reaburn of BusinessWeek put it, she has achieved more than “most scientists…in a lifetime”1

Claire M. Fraser was born on November 5, 1955, in Boston, Massachusetts.2  Growing up, Fraser lived with her parents in Saugus, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.  Both of her parents worked in the field of education, and she developed a love for science and learning at a young age.  When Fraser entered high school this love for science, particularly biology, grew.  She says that during that period of her life she gained an understanding of the human body as a “beautiful machine” and wanted to attain a greater knowledge of how the pieces work together.3

From high school, Fraser went on to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York, majoring in biology.  In spite of the fact that she was an excellent student, graduating with her Bachelor of Science in biology, summa cum laude in 1977, Fraser knew how to have fun.4  When she was in high school, she had felt, at times, that her love for science put her on the outside, but this was different in college.5  According to a college friend, she often studied for two days straight after going to hockey games and parties.6

Although she had planned to attend medical school, Fraser’s intentions changed in her senior year at RPI.  In an interview with Vanessa Mizell of the Washington Post, Fraser said that even as she was going on interviews and applying to medical schools, she realized that her passion lay in medical research.7   Because of this revelation, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in pharmacology at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY). While at school in Buffalo, Fraser met her first husband, J. Craig Venter, an assistant professor.  When her thesis committee was discouraging about the topic she had chosen, Venter, her lab director, encouraged her to continue pursuing her research.8  She credits him with helping her learn the lesson of not being afraid to look at things from a new perspective.9  This academic relationship between Fraser and Venter evolved, and, in 1981, they were married.10Fraser received her Ph.D. in pharmacology, and she went on to work as a research instructor at SUNY Buffalo until 1983.11   After that, Dr. Fraser spent two years working at Roswell Park Memorial Institute, also in Buffalo, New York, as a research scientist studying cancer.1213

In 1985, Fraser and her husband moved to Maryland to work as researchers at the National Institute of Health (NIH).14  After working at NIH for a few years, she was recruited to head up her own lab on alcohol abuse and alcoholism.  Here, she was able to continue her research on topics directly relating to human health and wellness.

In 1992, Fraser’s husband, Dr. Venter, left NIH to start a research foundation, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, MD.15  She followed, becoming the vice-president and director of the microbial genomics program.  Fraser worked there for fifteen years, and over that period of time participated in and oversaw several ground breaking research projects. One of Dr. Fraser’s first projects at TIGR pertained to the study of tumors on the molecular level, continuing her research on topics directly related to human health.16  Three years after joining TIGR, Fraser was a part of a team of scientists who were the first to map out the genetic code of a free-living organism.  The microbe they successfully mapped out, Haemophilus influenzae, is a factor in ear infections and childhood meningitis.17  This was groundbreaking research; no one else in the world at the time had successfully mapped out a free-living organism.

While at TIGR, Dr. Fraser worked primarily on microbes related to the medical field, largely those that were the cause of diseases.  After identifying Haemophilus influenzae, Fraser and her teams were responsible for the identification of microbes related to other illnesses, most notably lyme disease and syphilis.1819   This type of research is necessary for the development of vaccines and treatments of these devastating illnesses. At the time, TIGR was “the world leader” in microbial sequencing, responsible for approximately half of the microbes that had been decoded and mapped.20

In September of 1998, Dr. Fraser was named as the new president of TIGR.21   Under her leadership, the research grants of the institute multiplied, allowing them to work on a great deal of important projects.22   One example of research that the Institute performed pertained to the anthrax attacks of 2001. Fraser and her team were a part of the effort to decode the genes of the anthrax used in the attack, successfully working with the FBI to identify the strain in order to find the source. The public nature of the anthrax attacks, and the effort to identify the strain, brought Fraser's team, and the entire study of genomics into the public eye.

In early 2005, Dr. Fraser and her husband divorced.23  In spite of their personal split, Dr. Fraser and Dr. Venter continued to work together professionally in the context of The Institute of Genomic Research, she as president and he as chairman.  Later that same year, Dr. Fraser married Dr. Stephen Liggett.24  She continued on at TIGR, contributing to research projects, and weighing in on international issues in the field of bioscience.

Dr. Fraser participated in a joint effort to create standards of research publications.  In June 2007, concerns arose internationally about a German study that had been released, which pertained to a particular microbe.25   The international community was worried about a potential increase in bioterrorism due to freedom of information access.  Dr. Fraser made comments about the issue, pointing to the need for an international standard of information protection.26  Acknowledgment of her expertise as a researcher and leader in her field was expanding beyond the state, making her internationally known and respected.

Early in the spring of 2007, it was announced that Fraser would be leaving TIGR to take a position as head of a new research institution at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.27 The dean of the medical school was quoted as saying, “We are fortunate to have recruited a world-class researcher.”28This recognition, as not only a leading researcher and scientist in the state of Maryland, but a world-class researcher, highlights the significance of Dr. Fraser’s career.  Many internationally renowned scientists, such as Dr. Robert C. Gallo, identifier of HIV as the cause of AIDS, were recruited to work under her leadership at the new Genomic Institute at the University of Maryland.29

Since coming to the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Dr. Fraser has continued as an outstanding leader and researcher.  She and her team at the University of Maryland have won significantly more grant funding than school officials expected.  An article written in 2009 said that in the two years Fraser and her team had been at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, they doubled their budget, bringing in $80 million in grant funding.30   These funds have allowed her and her colleagues to study microbes and their relationship with obesity, Crohn’s disease and yeast infections, as well as participating in the NIH sponsored Human Microbiome Project.31   These research projects have the possibility of significant impact on healthcare and personal medicine.

In addition to her clear gift for genetic research, Dr. Fraser has a variety of other interests, and has contributed to society in other ways.  Her interests reach far beyond her field of research, encompassing varied topics such as landscape architecture, physics, intererior design, chemical engineering, and nano-technology.32  At one point in time, she even considered going back to school in one of these fields, demonstrating that she has by no means lost her thirst for learning.

Not only are her interests varied, but Dr. Fraser has tried to make an impact on the world outside of her scientific research. A significant way in which she has given back to the global community is through the scholarship fund for Kenyan girls that she set up in 2001.33  The scholarship was established to help fund the high school education of approximately five Kenyan girls a year, allowing them to receive their diploma.  This practical aid shows Dr. Fraser’s desire to make a difference in tangible ways, in addition to the legacy of her research.

Not only has Dr. Fraser done her best to reach the world around her through her work and resources, but she is a woman marked by team spirit.  Her approach to research projects is that of a team player.  As BusinessWeek writer, Paul Raeburn put it, “Fraser has little patience for formality or for hierarchy.”34   Her goal is not to be in charge, but rather to solve problems alongside her colleagues.

This lack of pretension is also evidenced by the way in which she decorates her office.  In 2002, an article written about her noted that Dr. Fraser was relaxed and easy-going, regularly bringing her three poodles with her to work.35  Not only that, but she displays her dogs' obedience school certificates on her office walls, rather than hang her own diplomas.36

In the 25 years since she came to Maryland, Dr. Claire Fraser has made an enormous impact on the blossoming field of genomics research.  Dr. Fraser has received numerous prestigious awards in the field of microbiology, as well as several honorary doctorates.37   Her intelligence and gifts have produced research projects whose lasting significance may one day be seen in the development of drugs and treatments for a variety of diseases.  Aditionally, she has been the most highly cited microbiologist in the last ten years, illustrating the importance of her work to the field as a whole.38  Her extreme productivity in the field, as evidenced by the number of articles she has written, as well as her leadership of the Institute for Genome Sciences, is expected to continue for many more years. The University of Maryland officials are hopeful that she will lead the School of Medicine to become a world premiere genomics research center.39  It was for the significance of her scientific work that Dr. Claire M. Fraser was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame in March 2010.
 

Endnotes:

1. Paul Reaburn, “A Genome Project against Disease: Claire Fraser is changing germ fighting in the 21st century,” BusinessWeek, July 1, 2002, <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/02_26/b3789090.htm> 4 June 2010. Return to text
2. "Claire M. Fraser." Newsmakers, Issue 2. Thomas Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2010. Return to text
3. Ibid. Return to text
4. "Claire M. Fraser," Newsmakers. Return to text
5. Raeburn. Return to text
6. Ibid. Return to text
7.  "Claire M. Fraser-Liggett, Institute for Genome Sciences; A genomics researchers winding road," Washington Post, January 4, 2010. Return to text
8. "Claire M. Fraser" Newsmakers. Return to text
9. Ibid. Return to text
10. Raeburn. Return to text
11. Ibid. Return to text
12.  Ibid. Return to text
13. Reece, "2010 Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Nomination." Return to text
14. Raeburn. Return to text
15. Ibid. Return to text
16.  "Claire M. Fraser," Newsmakers. Return to text
17. Julekha Dash, "Microbes take center stage: Claire Fraser-Ligett and the Institute for Genome Sciences strve for scientific renown," Baltimore Business Journal, July 17-23, 2009, 21. Return to text
18. Nicholas Wade, "DNA of Organism in Lyme Disease Is Decoded," New York Times, December 11, 1997. Return to text
19. Nicholas Wade, "Genetic Map of Syphilis Is Decoded; Hope for Vaccine Is Raised," New York Times, July 17, 1998. Return to text
20. Raeburn. Return to text
21. "TIGR Announces New President," PR Newswire Association, Inc., September 21, 1998. Return to text
22. Raeburn. Return to text
23. Richard Leiby, Washington Post, The Reliable Source, January 9, 2005. Return to text
24. "Liggett-Fraser," The Sun, Arts & Society, Aug 21, 2005. Return to text
25. Rick Weiss, "Release of Microbe Study Spurs Bioterror Worries,"Washington Post, June 1, 2007. Return to text
26. Ibid. Return to text
27.Chris Emery and Jonathan Bor, "UM Aims for Lead in Gene Research: Pioneering Scientist to Head New Facility at Medical School," The Sun, April 6, 2007. Return to text
28. Ibid. Return to text
29. Ibid. Return to text
30. Dash. Return to text
31. Ibid. Return to text
32. Raeburn. Return to text
33. Reece, "2010 Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Nomination." Return to text
34. Raeburn. Return to text
35. Ibid. Return to text
36. Ibid. Return to text
37. Larry Roberts, "Internationally Known Scientist to Head New Institute of Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine," University of Maryland Medical Center, <http://www.umm.edu/news/releases/fraser-liggett.htm> 8 June 2010. Return to text
38. Ibid. Return to text
39. Dash. Return to text
 
 

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