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Dec. 14, 2011

MSU earns record number of AAAS Fellows

EAST LANSING, Mich. — A record nine Michigan State University researchers have earned national recognition by being named AAAS Fellows by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

During the last three years, 20 MSU faculty members have been named as AAAS Fellows. The annual awards are peer-driven, so celebrating the most awards in the university’s history is a worthy endeavor, said Ian Gray, MSU’s vice president for research and graduate studies.

“MSU’s researchers are solving problems related to food safety, the environment, sustainable energy, health and much more all around the world on a daily basis,” he said. “To have so many of our scientists recognized in a single year is particularly satisfying.”

MSU’s AAAS Fellows are:

  • Christoph Adami, professor of microbiology
  • R. Sekhar Chivukula, associate dean of the College of Natural Science and professor of physics
  • Jeffrey Conner, professor of plant biology
  • Megan Donahue, professor of astronomy
  • Sheng Yang He, professor of plant biology
  • Gregg Howe, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology
  • Piotr Piecuch, University Distinguished Professor of chemistry
  • Thomas D. Sharkey, chairperson and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology
  • Elizabeth H. Simmons, dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics

Adami researches the nature of living systems, using computational and theoretical methods. His main focus is Darwinian evolution, which he studies at different levels of organization (from simple molecules to brains). He has pioneered the application of methods from information theory to the study of evolution and designed the Avida system that launched the use of digital life as a tool for investigating basic questions in evolutionary biology.

Chivukula is a physicist whose research focuses on the theory of electroweak symmetry breaking and the phenomenon of theories beyond the standard model of particle physics. He teaches at the graduate and undergraduate levels and is committed to incorporating active learning in all of his classes. Chivukula enjoys making interactive presentations on particle physics and cosmology to the general public and to K-12 students and teachers. As associate dean, he focuses on fostering faculty professional development.

Housed at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station, Conner’s group conducts laboratory, greenhouse and field studies integrating evolution, genetics, genomics and ecology. His goal is to attack problems at the interface of these areas in novel ways. Currently most of his studies deal with plant-insect interactions, especially pollination. He is interested in understanding the mechanisms by which natural selection on plants produces rapid adaptation to a variable environment, as well as possible constraints on this adaptation.

Donahue studies the most massive, gravitationally bound systems in the universe, galaxy clusters.  Encoded in the number, locations and properties of clusters of galaxies are important clues about the structure and history of the universe and the nature of dark matter and energy. Clusters also are laboratories for studying galaxy evolution in dense environments, in particular the most massive galaxies known – each cluster’s single-brightest galaxy – which may harbor a central black hole 10 billion times more massive than our own sun.

He, who also was recently named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator, focuses on molecular interactions between plants and pathogenic bacteria. Despite the ability to mount myriad immune responses, every plant or animal is still highly susceptible to numerous pathogens. Explaining the molecular basis of disease susceptibility is of fundamental importance in medicine and agriculture, as it holds a key to globally understanding infectious diseases in plants and humans. He and associates have made a series of original discoveries of how bacterial virulence factors manipulate host innate immunity, jasmonate signaling, vesicle trafficking and stomatal functions in plants. 

Howe aims to understand how plants respond to insect herbivory and other forms of wound stress. Howe uses tomato and Arabidopsis as experimental model systems to explain the mechanism of synthesis and action of the plant hormone jasmonate, and to study the molecular evolution of chemical traits that shape plant-insect interactions. These projects provide training in several areas of modern plant biology, including: analysis of protein-protein and receptor-hormone interactions; transcriptional networks; plant development; genetics of plant-insect interactions; protein biochemistry/proteomics; metabolism and metabolomics; and crop improvement for insect resistance.

Piecuch focuses on theoretical and computational chemistry and physics, particularly on accurate quantum calculations for molecular systems and atomic nuclei, including methods based on coupled-cluster theory. One objective of his research is to design and apply computational approaches that enable precise determination of potential energy surfaces and property functions for both existing and hypothetical molecular systems in their ground and excited states. He and his group develop methods such as this mathematically, code them into computer programs and distribute them around the world. Their theories and codes are used by scientists across all chemistry fields, providing in-depth understanding how basic molecular interactions occur. Their work may lead to better energy sources, less-damaging pollutants and more.

The Sharkey lab focuses on the biochemistry and biophysics of gas exchange reactions between plants and the atmosphere. Photosynthetic carbon fixation from carbon dioxide uptake through to synthesis of sucrose and starch is one major area of research. A second major focus is isoprene emissions from plants to the atmosphere. Work in the Sharkey lab has shown that isoprene made by plants can help leaves tolerate the high temperatures that sunlight can cause.

Along with serving as dean of MSU’s residential undergraduate science college, Simmons is a particle theorist whose research focuses on the origins of the masses of the elementary subatomic particles – particularly the W and Z bosons that transmit the weak nuclear force and the heaviest known particle, the top quark. She investigates theories in which these masses arise from new strong dynamics at energy scales accessible to experiments like those now under way at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Nearly 540 AAAS members were selected as AAAS Fellows for 2012. The winners will be recognized at a forum on Feb. 18, 2012, during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada.


Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.