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Academy Members Awarded Numerous Scientific Prizes in 2012

Academy members put on an impressive showing in 2012 with recognitions ranging from the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science to the American Society for Microbiology's mentoring award.

Published December 28, 2012

Nobel laureate and Academy Governor Martin Chalfie was one of the awardees of the 2012 Golden Goose Award, a new award that recognizes human and economic benefits of federally funded research. Specifically, the award focuses on seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.

                Chalfie and two colleagues, Osamu Shimomura and Roger Tsien, won because their studies of why a jellyfish glows green led to: numerous advances in genetics, cell biology, developmental biology, and neurobiology; a better understanding of human diseases; and the development of methods used widely by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

                In 1988, Chalfie heard about Shimomura's work studying jellyfish luminescence and isolating a protein that glowed light green in daylight and fluorescent green in UV light. A biochemist, Chalfie conceived of using green fluorescent protein (GFP) to map gene expression in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. By doing so, he demonstrated how the gene for GFP could be connected to gene switches or genes in other proteins.

                The result was that researchers could follow different proteins to observe the chemical processes of cells, which constitute the basic functioning of an organism. Improving on GFP's value for research, Tsien exchanged amino acids within GFP to create stronger luminescence and different colors. His work allowed researchers to track different proteins, and different biological processes, at one time.

                Chalfie, Shimomura, and Tsien won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008. GFP, identified and developed through research funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, remains a fundamental tool for researchers all over the world. It recently played a crucial role in 2012 research involving the integration of stem cells into existing heart muscle in the hope of developing new treatments for damaged heart tissue.


The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science has been awarded to Benjamin tenOever, a member of the Academy's Non-coding RNA Biology Discussion Group Steering Committee, and Songhai Shi, winner of the Academy's 2010 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists. The Vilcek Prize is awarded by the Vilcek Foundation, which honors and supports foreign-born scientists who have made outstanding contributions to society in the United States.


Academy member Michael W. Young, Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor, vice president of Academic Affairs, and head, Laboratory of Genetics, The Rockefeller University, was named a winner of the 2012 Canada Gairdner International Award, which recognizes significant achievements in biomedical science from medical researchers around the world. Young was selected "for his pioneering discoveries concerning the biological clock responsible for circadian rhythms."


Academy Board Governor Elaine Fuchs, Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor and head of the Laboratory of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development, received the 2012 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, an award given to honor advancements that further our understanding of birth defects. She shared the prize with Howard Green, George Higginson Professor of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School.

                Fuchs and Green, lifelong colleagues, have revolutionized the understanding of skin biology, creating crucial advances in treating skin cancers and other diseases as well as severe burns. Their work pioneered innovative technologies that explain the molecular workings of skin stem cells and inherited skin disorders, including cancers and some birth defects.

                "Taken together, the research of Dr. Green and Dr. Fuchs has expanded medicine's ability to diagnose and understand the basis of many skin disorders, from cancer to inherited disorders to severe burns," said Joseph Leigh Simpson, senior vice president for research and global programs at the March of Dimes. "Their work has saved the lives of thousands of burn patients and we hope their work with skin stem cells will lead to new ways to prevent and treat birth defects."


Academy member Harvey Zar is a founding member of a start-up company that created ShugaTrak, a phone app that uses motivational techniques and emotionally intelligent messaging to help teenagers and their parents manage the teen's diabetes. The team behind ShugaTrak took first prize at "Startup Weekend New Haven," a Connecticut-based entrepreneur competition.

                Zar, who has a broad background in technology and chemical engineering and is also a practicing emergency room physician, used his unique perspective to help his team see teens not only as technology users, but as patients. "Teens with diabetes have unique problems-they dealing with a serious disease, in addition to undergoing a transition to adulthood -and those needs are not being met," says Zar.

                The ShugaTrak app allows parents to create a variety of incentives-such as having money deposited into an iTunes account-for teens to regularly track and control their blood glucose levels. "Teens want to get independence from their parents," says Zar. "By automatically messaging parents when teens test their blood glucose, it allows teens to feel in charge, and means parents are not constantly checking in with their teens for updates."

                "It takes away that power struggle," says Zar, who has been overwhelmed by the positive response to ShugaTrak from parents who participate in Juvenile Diabetes Support Groups.


Academy member E. Peter Greenberg, professor, Department of Microbiology, University of Washington School of Medicine, has been honored with the 2012 D.C. White Research and Mentoring Award from the American Society for Microbiology. Recognizing distinguished accomplishments in interdisciplinary research and mentoring in microbiology, this award honors D.C. White, who was known for his interdisciplinary scientific approach and for being a dedicated and inspiring mentor.

                As stated by his nominator, former graduate student Heidi Kaplan, now at the University of Texas Medical School, "Greenberg's career is marked by outstanding success in what continues to be recognized as interdisciplinary research in quorum sensing. In addition, his mentoring qualities are legendary. He has made an indelible impact on the scientific careers of his students and postdoctoral fellows, and most have gone on to be leaders in microbiology."

                Greenberg has spent his scientific career studying the social behavior of bacteria. He has focused on the coordination of activities in groups of bacteria, with an emphasis on cell-to-cell communication and a phenomenon that is known as quorum sensing. "Greenberg pioneered the quorum-sensing field and has remained one of its leaders. He made a seamless transition from working on bacterial luminescence, a microbiological oddity, to focusing on Pseudomonas pathogenesis, a system that has critical implications on human health," expounded Kaplan.