Two UA Professors Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Roy Parker is renowned for his work on the cellular machinery that translates genetic information into proteins.

The history of the universe is becoming clearer thanks to the field of infrared astronomy and the contributions of Marcia J. Rieke.

By Mari N. Jensen and Daniel Stolte, College of Science and University Communications, May 1, 2012

Roy Parker, a Regents’ Professor in the department of molecular and cellular biology, and Marcia J. Rieke, a Regents’ Professor in the department of astronomy, have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Two University of Arizona Regents’ Professors – biologist Roy Parker and astronomer Marcia J. Rieke – were elected to the National Academy of Sciences on May 1.

Election to membership in the academy is considered one of the highest honors a U.S. scientist or engineer can achieve. Parker and Rieke will be inducted into the academy next April during its 150th annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Parker and Rieke were elected along with 82 others across the country, bringing the number of UA faculty members elected to NAS to 14. There currently are 2,152 active NAS members. Among the NAS’s renowned members are Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright and Alexander Graham Bell. Nearly 200 living academy members have won Nobel Prizes.

“We are delighted that not one, but two of our most outstanding faculty members have been elected to join the National Academy this year,” said UA Senior Vice President for Research Leslie Tolbert. “Roy Parker and Marcia Rieke are stellar scientists who have spent the major parts of their careers right here, and their election to the National Academy is a tremendous honor for the University as well as for them.”

“Both of them work in areas of fundamental science,” Tolbert added. “Their research on fundamental properties of matter and life has shaped how we think about early events in the universe and the ways cells regulate the expression of their genes.”

Roy ParkerRoy Parker

Parker’s research focuses on RNA, the chemical that carries genetic  information to the cellular machinery that makes proteins. His lab  discovered specialized storage compartments within cells called P-bodies  that store used versions of the chemical messenger, known as messenger  RNA or mRNA.

“It is a terrific surprise and a great honor,” Parker said. “It is truly a reflection of all the talented individuals I have had the good fortune of working with in my lab over the years, and I am indebted to them for their efforts.”

“Roy is a brilliant scientist and wonderful human being,” said Hanna “Johnny” Fares, interim head of the UA’s department of molecular and cellular biology and associate professor. “His scientific work is astounding, having revolutionized, and being the leading authority on, the process of RNA degradation. Roy is one of these rare people who inspires and elevates everyone around him.”

Parker is a UA Regents’ Professor of molecular and cellular biology and also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

Much of his research has used the single-celled organism yeast to tease out the inner workings of cells. Now he is expanding his work to include how messenger RNAs are involved in regulating viral infections and in the changes in neurons that occur during memory formation.

Parker joined the UA in 1989 as an assistant professor and rose through the ranks, becoming a Regents’ Professor in 2001. In addition, he has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator since 1994.

Among his awards and honors, Parker has been the keynote speaker at many professional society meetings, including the EMBO workshop and the Translation Control Meeting. He was named a UA College of Science Galileo Fellow in 2003, received the National Institutes of Health Merit Award in 2004 and was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Science in 2010. He was president of The RNA Society in 2010.

Parker earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1979 from Carnegie Mellon University and his doctorate in genetics from the University of California, San Francisco in 1985. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco from 1985-86, the University of California, San Diego from 1986-87, and at the University of Massachusetts Medical School from 1988-89.

Marcia RiekeMarcia J. Rieke

Rieke joined the UA’s department of astronomy in 1979 after receiving her doctorate in physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology three years prior.

Rieke has been heralded for the international effort that she has led on the Spitzer space telescope to conduct very deep surveys at far-infrared wavelengths, which will allow astronomers to trace the history of star formation back in time 10 billion years.

Together with her husband, Regents’ Professor George Rieke, she co-authored a paper on the infrared interstellar extinction law – one of the most cited papers in all of astronomy. Many of her most-cited papers on radiation from galactic nuclei and starbursts in colliding galaxies are classics in the field.

Rieke is the principal investigator for the near-infrared camera, or NIRCam, on the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space telescope ever conceived and scheduled for launch in 2018. NIRCam will study infrared light.

Because the universe is expanding, light from the earliest galaxies have been stretched, or “redshifted,” from visible light into infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. NIRCam will be able to visualize infrared light, making it essential to examining the early phases of star and galaxy formation, and studying the shapes and colors of distant galaxies. NIRCam will also help astronomers learn the age of stars in nearby galaxies.

Rieke first heard about her nomination from her husband, George, who was elected to the NAS last year.

“During the National Academy membership meeting this morning, George snuck out of the room and called me,” Rieke said. “I’m still in a state of shock. I hope the world recognizes the caliber of the research that is going on here on our campus.”

In the field of astronomical instrumentation, Rieke is perhaps best known internationally for her work on space infrared missions and is the principal investigator for the Near Infrared Camera. The camera will be installed on the next generation of astronomical observatory developed by NASA, the James Webb Space Telescope, and promises to provide the most sensitive view of the early universe ever achieved.

An additional measure of Rieke’s international stature is demonstrated by her service as the vice-chair of program prioritization panel for he Astro200 NAS Decadal Survey Committee, an exercise in planning mission and facilities for the next 10 years. Billions of dollars in federal investments will be based on her committee’s work, where she helped orchestrate the efforts of hundreds of researchers in the field and judged more than 100 project concepts.

In 2007, Rieke was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,  joining the ranks of former vice presidents and Supreme Court justices,  Nobel and Academy Award winners and prominent executives.

“The College of Science is proud of its 10 National Academy members,” said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science and executive dean of the Colleges of Arts, Letters and Science. “Roy Parker and Marcia Rieke are two extraordinary scientists that greatly deserve this honor. ”

The following faculty members were elected previously:

J. Roger P. Angel, David Arnett, William Dickinson, John Hildebrand, Randy Jokipii, Margaret Kidwell, John Law, George Rieke (all College of Science), Nicolaas Bloembergen (College of Optical Sciences), William Bowers and Brian Larkins (College of Agriculture), C. Vance Haynes (College of Social and Behavioral Science and College of Science).

Posted in AZBio News, Members.