Heidi E. Hamm was born in Loma Linda, California. She earned her B.A. at Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts in 1973 and her Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Texas at Austin in 1980. Hamm then did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1983, she became an assistant professor in the Department of Visual Science at the School of Optometry at Indiana University. She remained there for 1 year before joining the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. She was promoted to associate professor in 1990 and professor in 1994. In 2000, Hamm moved to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center to become the Earl W. Sutherland, Jr. Professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology. She remains in this position today.
Hamm's research focuses on understanding the molecular basis of signaling mechanisms mediated by G proteins. Specifically, she is looking at how G proteins become activated by receptors, how they in turn activate effector enzymes, and how they turn off. Hamm and her colleagues have determined the sites of interaction between proteins by decomposing the proteins into small synthetic peptides and determining which peptides block interaction sites. To understand the process more fully, they also determined the three-dimensional crystal structures of G proteins in their inactive and activated states. More recently, Hamm and her colleagues solved the structures of the bg subunit and the heterotrimeric G protein. These high-resolution structural studies allowed them to postulate specific hypotheses regarding mechanisms of receptor–G protein interaction and activation, G protein subunit association-dissociation, and effector activation.
Hamm's honors and awards include the National Science Foundation Research Opportunities for Women Career Development Award (1987–1989), the Glaxo Cardiovascular Discovery Award (1989–1991), the Lee and Robert Peterson Distinguished Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression (1998), the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Fritz Lipmann Lectureship (2001), the Vanderbilt University Stanley Cohen Award (2003), and the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression Distinguished Investigator Award (2003). Hamm was president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from 2006 to 2008.