News from the National Academy of Sciences

Jan. 22, 2015


Academy Honors Six for Major Contributions in Physical Sciences and Engineering

WASHINGTON — The National Academy of Sciences will honor six individuals with awards in recognition of their extraordinary scientific achievements in a variety of fields in the physical sciences. The recipients are:

Jonathan Weissman, investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and professor in the department of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco, is the recipient of the inaugural NAS Award for Scientific Discovery, presented in 2015 in the field of chemistry, biochemistry, or biophysics.

In 2009, Weissman and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, developed a technique called ribosome profiling. With this technique, researchers can sequence the chunks of messenger RNA (mRNA) that ribosomes are decoding, giving a snapshot of the genes being translated within a cell. First applied to yeast, ribosome profiling has since been extended to many other organisms, including humans. It has been used to identify new proteins and peptides, investigate the process of translation, measure gene expression in cells, and determine rates of protein synthesis. In addition, Weissman and his team have employed ribosome profiling to make important insights into the critical role that protein synthesis plays in cell growth and differentiation.

The NAS Award for Scientific Discovery was endowed in 2014 in honor of John P. Schaefer through a gift from Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) and the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation. It is awarded biennially to recognize an accomplishment or discovery in basic research within the past five years. Weissman will receive a $50,000 cash prize and $50,000 to support his research.

Alan R. Mulally, president and chief executive officer (retired) of the Ford Motor Co., is the recipient of the 2015 J. C. Hunsaker Award in Aeronautical Engineering.

As president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Mulally played a key role in the development and commercialization of the Boeing 777, the world’s largest twinjet and most popular wide-body plane. Now recognized as one of the most reliable and safe airplanes, the 777 was first noted for its original designs. It was the first Boeing plane, for instance, to use a full-fledged “fly-by-wire” system, replacing conventional manual flight controls with electronic signals conveyed over wires. The 777’s complex design was made possible with the CATIA digital design system, which for the first time let Boeing design an entire plane on computers prior to production. Since its first commercial flight in 1994, the 777 has proved its long-distance capabilities and currently holds the record for the longest non-stop flight, 11,664 nautical miles, from Hong Kong to London.

The J.C. Hunsaker Award, established by Professor and Mrs. Jerome C. Hunsaker, honors excellence in the field of aeronautical engineering. The award includes a $50,000 prize.

Bruce D. Roth, senior vice president of small molecule drug discovery at Genentech, is the recipient of the 2015 NAS Award for Chemistry in Service to Society.

In 1985 while at Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical Research, Roth identified a molecule that inhibited HMG CoA reductase, a key enzyme in the metabolic pathway that the body uses to produce cholesterol. Roth and his colleagues worked to synthesize the enzyme-inhibiting molecule and transform it into a viable drug, atorvastatin, sold under the brand name Lipitor. People with high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol have an increased risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.  Studies showed that Lipitor could not only lower cholesterol but also delay or even prevent heart attacks. Those results helped make Lipitor the world’s leading cholesterol-lowering drug, taken by millions of people.

The NAS Award for Chemistry in Service to Society, established by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., recognizes contributions to chemistry, either in fundamental science or its application, that clearly satisfy a societal need. The award includes a $20,000 prize and is presented in alternate years to chemists working in industry and to those in academia, government, and nonprofit organizations.

Thomas Dean Pollard, Sterling Professor of Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and professor of cell biology at Yale University, is the recipient of the NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing, presented in 2015 in the field of biochemistry.

Pollard is being honored for his many review articles describing the molecular mechanisms of the protein actin in cell motility and cell division. The term “cell motility” describes the spontaneous and active movement of a cell, such as the crawling of an amoeba or white blood cell. In humans, a variety of cells demonstrate motility, including contracting muscles, migrating cancer cells, and nerve cell growth processes that lay down a million miles of connections in the brain. Thus, cell motility plays an important role in health and disease. The protein actin is a key player in cell motility in eukaryotes and is also involved in a wide variety of other functions, including cell division. Pollard’s articles have proved so integral to this area of research that they have been cited hundreds and even thousands of times.

The NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing, supported by Annual Reviews in honor of J. Murray Luck, recognizes authors whose reviews have synthesized extensive and difficult material, rendering a significant service to science and influencing the course of scientific thought. The award includes a $20,000 prize.

W. Carl Lineberger, E.U. Condon Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at JILA and the University of Colorado, Boulder, is the 2015 recipient of the NAS Award in Chemical Sciences.

Lineberger developed negative ion photoelectron spectroscopy, which scientists can use to determine the electron affinity of the neutral version of an atom or molecule. Electron affinity — the change in energy that occurs when an electron is added to an atom or molecule — provides important information about atoms and molecules and how they interact in chemical reactions. The “periodic table” of atomic electronic affinities now included in general chemistry textbooks is founded on Lineberger’s early work with negative ion photoelectron spectroscopy. His development of anion photoelectron spectroscopy as a tool to study small molecules has provided both an important method to characterize highly reactive, short-lived species known as free radicals as well as a new, direct way to observe the structure and evolution of molecules in the process of undergoing a chemical reaction. Lineberger’s experimental methods are now in widespread use in laboratories worldwide.

Supported by the Merck Company Foundation, the NAS Award in Chemical Sciences includes a $15,000 prize and honors innovative research in the chemical sciences that contributes to a better understanding of the natural sciences and to the benefit of humanity.

Benjamin Recht, assistant professor of electrical engineering, computer science, and statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of the William O. Baker Award for Initiatives in Research, presented in 2015 in the field of statistics and machine learning.

Recht is being honored for his significant contributions to the field of data science. A common problem in the modern world is that there is lots of data but it is often incomplete. Recht’s work has been particularly valuable in a broad area of mathematics that uses assumptions to reconstruct data — matrix completion and nuclear normal minimization. His seminal papers on matrix completion, written with Emmanuel Candes of Stanford University, Maryam Fazel of the University of Washington, and Pablo Parrilo of MIT, have been cited more than 2,000 times and have contributed to fields ranging from machine learning to astronomical imaging.

Supported by Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, the Baker Award includes a $15,000 prize and recognizes innovative young scientists and encourages research likely to lead toward new capabilities for human benefit.

The winners will be honored in a ceremony on Sunday, April 26, during the National Academy of Sciences' 152nd annual meeting.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and — with the National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council — provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

Molly Galvin, Senior Media Relations Officer
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail
Twitter: @theNASciences

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