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Weinberg to Receive Top Science Honor

By May K. Tse
Associate News Editor

Last week, several MIT faculty members were recognized for their scientific contributions. On Wednesday, Professor of Biology Robert A. Weinberg '64 was named as one of nine recipients of the prestigious National Medal of Science.

In addition, three professors were elected to the National Academy of Science.

Weinberg is the 19th National Medal of Science winner from MIT.

Robert J. Birgeneau, dean of the School of Science, said that the medal recognized people for long-term discoveries, as opposed to the Nobel Prize, which recognizes only a specific contribution. "The National Medal of Science is for an interval over one's career rather than one contribution. The Nobel Prize is usually for one great discovery."

Weinberg said that he was surprised to be named as a recipient of the medal. "Ihadn't the vaguest idea that they were thinking of me in this context," Weinberg said, "I didn't conceive of it; it's just beyond my imagination."

Weinberg is a noted cancer researcher and has spent 15 years studying the origin of cancer. He also led the way toward the discovery of the retinoblastoma gene. "It's a rare tumor of the eye, but by studying it, one can learn about many different kinds of tumors,"he said.

"The ultimate goal is to learn what makes a cell grow and keep on growing,"Weinberg said.

As a National Medal of Science winner, Weinberg will have a chance to meet President Clinton this summer. "This is an enormous thrill to meet the president of the United States," he said.

Weinberg to continue research

Despite winning the award, Weinberg is set to continue his work. "It's fun. Research can be very interesting. You get to work with bright people; it's an interesting challenge. Iwas fortunate to work at a time when biology was going through a revolution and I was very lucky,"he said.

Three elected to science academy

Last week also saw the election of the newest members of the National Academy of Science.

Professor of Biology Eric S. Lander, Professor of Biology Peter S. Kim, and Professor of Chemistry Sylvia T. Ceyer were among this year's newly elected members. They join 97 other MIT faculty members in the academy.

Birgeneau said he wasn't too surprised that MIThad more NAS members elected this year, but "what's unusual about these three is that they are extremely young, with an average age of about 40."

"The Academy is usually a final stage in a person's career, an honor that is given when you're quite senior,"Birgeneau said.

Birgeneau also noted another special feature about this threesome. They "are outstanding researchers, but each is also an outstanding classroom teacher." Lander has won the Baker Award for Teaching in the past, and Ceyer has won the School of Science teaching prize.

Economist moves to genetics

Lander was informed of his election when he got a phone call last Tuesday from David Botstein, the chair of the genetics department of the NAS. "It was special hearing it from him. He and I used to work together, and he was the one who got me interested in genetics," Lander said.

"I was delighted. It is a tremendous honor from one's colleagues, especially considering that I switched fields,"Lander said, referring to the fact that he originally got his doctorate in mathematics, then taught economics at Harvard Business School before eventually turning to molecular genetics and becoming a Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Sciences fellow in 1986.

"I am very grateful to the MITcommunity. They appointed me to Whitehead before Ihad even published a paper,"Lander said.

Lander became a member of the faculty in 1989 and since 1990, has acted as director of the Human Genome Project, an international collaborative research effort that aims to have the human genome mapped out in five to seven more years.

"My driving force is the extraordinary excitement of reading and understanding the genetic code that has driven life for billions of years. It's like an ancient and sacred text, and you're the first generation to read it. It's a reason to get up each day,"Lander said.

Kim sees educational role

Kim has been working on two major areas of study: three-dimensional protein folding and viruses. His most recent work includes discovering a structure on the surface of HIVthat could be significant in designing AIDSdrugs. He has also worked with the influenza virus and a virus that caused leukemia in mice.

When Kim was notified by the NAS, "Iwas very pleasantly surprised. It's a great honor and I'm thrilled to be elected to be a member."

"The National Academy of Science does from time to time make recommendations to government officials as a body of scientists, to act as advisers,"Kim said. "There's always new responsibilities, but it's very important to do. You need to continue educating the public of science and technology and its benefits. The role of organizations such as this is an important one that we need to take seriously."

Pleased as he is with being elected to the NAS, "Ithink we need to get back to work now. People who are in the sciences aren't focused on prizes but on the joy of learning new things," Kim said.

Ceyer examines surface chemistry

Ceyer, the third new NASmember, has been at MIT for roughly the past 15 years and "has done very elegant research of chemistry which occurs at surfaces. She combines deep understanding of chemistry with the superb technical skills of doing high vacuum surface experiments,"Birgeneau said. Ceyer herself was out of town and could not be reached for comment.