The independent news organization of Duke University

Profs’ election to National Academy of Sciences one of the “highest honors”

Two Duke scientists have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. NAS, which selected 72 new members Tuesday, currently includes 18 other Duke professors. The society has 2,100 total members. 

Recognized for their excellence and achievements in research, Philip Benfey, Paul Kramer professor of biology and director of the Center for Systems Biology in the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, and Vann Bennett, James B. Duke professor of cell biology, biochemistry and neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, will be officially inducted into NAS next April.

According to the NAS website, election to the Academy is considered “one of the highest honors that can be accorded to a U.S. scientist or engineer.” As of 2009, in addition to its 2,100 members, NAS is composed of about 380 foreign associates, 200 of whom have won Nobel Prizes.

NAS members often serve as advisers to government officials—including the President—on science, engineering and health-related issues.

“They are potentially a source of non-political science policy advice,” Bennett said, noting that NAS has made comments and provided reports on controversial issues like climate change and stem cell research. “They can potentially be used... as a source of non-biased, non-partisan views on a topic.”

Benfey came to Duke in 2002 as chair of the biology department. His research has focused on the use of a combination of genetics, molecular biology and genomics to better understand the mechanisms that underlie the function and formation of plant cells, particularly those in the root. He holds a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from Harvard University.

Bennett, who began conducting research at Duke in 1987, studies the functional organization of membrane proteins, particularly the ankyrin family of adapters, in the tissues of vertebrates. He earned both his M.D. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

In an interview with The Chronicle, Bennett recognized NAS’s efforts to broaden its membership over the years, extending more invitations to younger scientists and women.

The scientists expressed gratitude for the colleagues, graduate students and post-doctoral scholars who have contributed to their research over the years.

Benfey also attributed his accomplishments as a researcher to the interdisciplinary environment that Duke provides, noting the University’s efforts to promote collaboration.

“Collaboration is encouraged and rewarded at Duke, and this is not the case at every institution,” Benfey said.

Also among the 72 newly elected Academy members was alumnus Dr. William Kaelin, Trinity ’79 and Medical School ’83.  A professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, he has focused his research career on oncology, primarily the role and function of tumor suppressor genes.

Kailin said he had a great appreciation for his Duke education and the influence that his professors at the University had on him. When he entered medical school, Kaelin said he had not intended to become a researcher. Studying under Duke Professor of Radiation Oncology Randy Jirtle, however, helped him decide to become a scientist instead of a physician. Jirtle served as a mentor and inspired him to seek a more scientific route, Kaelin said.

“It was very important to work in Randy Jirtle’s laboratory because it reopened my eyes to becoming a scientist,” he said. “Most importantly, he showed me that science could be fun.”

In addition to the three elected to NAS with ties to the University, Lorena Beese, James B. Duke professor of biochemistry, was officially inducted this weekend to the Academy after having been elected in spring 2009.

NAS was established during the height of the Civil War by former President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, according to the NAS website. Since then, the institution has included some of the most famous and renowned scientists in the world.

“What was so thrilling was that you actually find the book where the first signature was that of Abraham Lincoln,” Beese said. “You’re in a room with all of these legendary figures in science.”