AMES, Iowa – Two Iowa State University faculty members – Jonathan Wendel and Dan Shechtman – are among the 143 scholars elected this year to the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious honor that recognizes contributions to scientific research.
“Iowa State University is extremely proud to have two faculty members elected to the National Academy of Sciences,” said Wendy Wintersteen, Iowa State’s president. “Dr. Wendel and Dr. Shechtman have a long history of extraordinary achievement through their scientific research and scholarship. This recognition enhances the overall excellence of our university and highlights our research efforts.”
Jonathan Wendel and genome doubling
Wendel, a Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences who has been a member of the botany and then ecology, evolution and organismal biology departments since 1986, is an evolutionary biologist who has helped shed light on the process and importance of genome doubling in plants. His election to the National Academy of Sciences is his second significant major honor announced this spring, as he was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last month.
The back-to-back accolades have been a stunning surprise for Wendel, who emphasized that recognition of his research also reflects the collective efforts of colleagues, collaborators and students during what he considers the “golden age” of biology.
“Science is a humming beehive of activity where we’re all working collaboratively without even necessarily knowing what the other bees are doing. In unpredictable ways, we advance the field. It’s such a privilege and pleasure to be part of the process, and I’m grateful to have such a long career filled with so many opportunities to do my bit for the beehive,” he said.
Wendel’s research on genome doubling – known as polyploidy – has included being part of the international consortium that mapped the cotton genome a decade ago. Scientists have long been aware that some organisms and most plants have more than two sets of genomes in their chromosomes, but new research continues to show how essential polyploidy is to genetic changes in plants over the vast sweep of evolutionary time.
“That’s my guiding light now, figuring out the dimensions of the wondrous cycles of polyploidy,” Wendel said when his election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was announced last month.
Dan Shechtman and quasicrystals
Israel-based Shechtman, an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering who’s also affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames National Laboratory, accepted the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals, a material that science said couldn’t exist.
In fact, there was push back against his 1982 discovery of crystalline materials whose atoms didn’t line up periodically like every crystal known at the time. But Shechtman did follow-up experiments to confirm his findings, published his work and stood up for it.
“For a long time, it was me against the world,” he said at the time of the Nobel announcement. “I was a subject of ridicule and lectures about the basics of crystallography.”
But he prevailed. And in his notes for a lecture at Iowa State, he noted how common quasicrystals are today: “QCs (quasicrystals) are quite abundant – hundreds of quasi-periodic crystals have been discovered by now. They are easy to make – practically all the techniques for metallic alloy making can produce QCs, and they are made of simple frequently used elements – aluminum, iron, chromium and manganese, to name a few.”
Shechtman is also a Distinguished Emeritus Professor at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, the home base for most of his career. He joined Iowa State’s materials science and engineering department and the Ames National Laboratory in 2004.
The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution established by Congress in 1863. It recognizes outstanding achievement in scientific research, and members are elected by their peers. The academy works with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine to provide science, technology and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations. Including Wendel and Shechtman, Iowa State has had 14 faculty members elected to the National Academy of Sciences.