4 UC Berkeley faculty elected to join Royal Society of London

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Four UC Berkeley faculty members were elected to join the Royal Society of London last week, the oldest scientific academy in continued existence, which boasts names such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking in its ledgers.  

Professor of genetics, genomics, and development Richard Harland and professor of chemistry Martin Head-Gordon were among the chosen fellows. Foreign Members, who are not citizens of the British Commonwealth, are Inez Fung, professor of atmospheric science, and Brian Staskawicz, professor of plant and microbial biology. The fellows were among 61 elected this year and chosen from a group of about 770 nominees.

To be considered for the society, candidates must have made “a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science,” according to the Royal Society’s website.

Harland, a developmental biologist, is credited for the discovery of the protein Noggin, which plays a significant role in the neural development of vertebrate embryos.

“We made several advances in understanding how vertebrate embryos develop a neural plate and set up the differences between head and tail and back or belly in the early embryo,” Harland said.

David Stafford, a former postdoctoral fellow in Harland’s lab, explained how “any scientist can get lucky” but that Harland is especially deserving because of his significant results. “He’s excited about signing the book that Newton signed,” Stafford said.

Head-Gordon’s research involves quantum chemistry and the improvement of electronic structure theories, which describe how electrons move within atoms and molecules. Head-Gordon’s research also entails the use of computer programs to solve chemistry problems.

“Martin is clearly the pre-eminent electronic structure theorist of his day and age,” said Romit Chakraborty, a postdoc working with Head-Gordon.

The second woman to get a doctorate in meteorology at MIT, Fung has explored a diversity of topics, from atmospheric science to carbon cycling and drought tolerant trees.

“Her work has really had a meaningful and long-term impact in our field,” said Miller Postdoctoral Fellow Alex Turner, a member in Fung’s research group. Turner added how Fung has had a large effect on the “direction of science as a whole.”

Focusing on a “whole earth” approach, Fung said she seeks recognition in her field of work rather than personal recognition. She also has prior experience working with the Royal Society as the lead on a 2014 collaboration between the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society about climate change.

Staskawicz is a pioneer in the field of molecular plant pathology, studying plant adaptation and resistance to disease.

“It’s incredible the network that he’s supported into the field,” said Allison Schwartz, who graduated from Staskawicz’s lab in 2016. “Now, he is involved in the new Innovative Genomics Institute, representing plant biology …. at the next frontier. … He’s still at the cusp, at the forefront of innovation.”

Contact Marlena Tavernier-Fine at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MarlenaTF_DC.