Seven NU profs welcomed to top academic societies

Nicole Drummer

Seven Northwestern professors have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, two of the most prestigious academic societies in the country.

“For both academies, it’s among the highest kinds of distinctions that scholars can earn,” said university Provost Lawrence Dumas. “It’s terrific for them and it’s terrific for Northwestern.”

Professors Ted Belytschko, George Schatz, Brian Hoffman and Douglas Medin were elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Founded in 1780, the society is composed of some of the world’s leading scientists, scholars, artists, business people and public leaders. NU ranked ninth among universities in terms of the number of faculty members elected to the academy.

Professors Zdenek Bazant, Mark Ratner and Patricia Spear were elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Established in 1863, it bestows one of the highest honors that can be awarded to an American scientist. Only Harvard, Stanford and the California Institute of Technology had more faculty members elected to the academy.

“The honor bestowed is determined by the best academics in their relevant fields,” Dumas said. “They are elected through a very rigorous process by the members themselves.”

Hoffman, a chemistry professor, was elected to the American Academy for his spectroscopic studies of metalloenzyme mechanisms and his study of electron transfer between proteins.

“I was delighted and surprised because I didn’t see it coming,” he said. “The best thing was that the academy mailed out notices well in advance, and mine got held up, so the first thing I heard about it was when I got an e-mail from a colleague congratulating me.”

Hoffman said his research is most exciting when something unexpected occurs in the lab.

“It’s when you observe something that’s just so neat and cool,” he said. “We like to think we’re working on important progress … but what’s fun is getting a new insight on things.”

One example is Hoffman’s research on macro-cycles. It boggled him for a long time, but one day everything fell into place and confirmed the data.

“It was like we were looking through a camera lens and everything was very blurry and suddenly everything became clear and in focus,” he said.

Medin, a psychology professor, said his work has taken him from the Midwest, where he studies how people think differently about hunting and fishing, to Guatemala, where he examines different populations in the rainforest.

“My research focuses on culture and thought, differences in cognitive development and decision making and how people think about nature and react on it,” he said.

Bazant, a civil engineering professor elected to the National Academy of Sciences, expressed joy at being elected to the prestigious academy.

“I feel ecstatic,” he said. “It’s something I never expected, but it’s very, very nice.”

Bazant studies how size affects structures such as concrete, geology, airplanes and dams.

He said his favorite aspect of doing research is doing calculations.

“I like to sit down and think,” he said. “I don’t do it for money, but because I like it.”

Spear, chairwoman of the microbiology and immunology department at Feinberg School of Medicine, was selected for her studies in virology.

Spear has spent almost her career studying how the herpes simplex virus attacks cells. She identifies proteins on the cell surface through which the virus enters the cell.

“My main interest is in understanding molecules and the mechanisms by which they invade cells,” she said. “I’ve studied one virus for practically my whole career and I’ve made discoveries in new areas of cell biology where the virus interacts with cells.”