Oberlin's 1 Percent: Alumni Members of the National Academy of Sciences Return to Campus

October 17, 2016

Communications Staff

Entrance to the Oberlin College Science Center

OBERLIN—The college will welcome back to campus a dozen alumni who are members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for a series of discussions highlighting the role of liberal arts in producing first-rate scientists.

Oberlin and the National Academy of Sciences: Celebrating the Impact and Promise of the Sciences and Liberal Arts Colleges will bring 12 members to campus on October 27-29, where they will share highlights of their professional journey and interact with students and faculty. The symposium will increase awareness of the value of liberal arts and its importance in preparing scientists and researchers.

A private, nonprofit society of distinguished scholars, the NAS provides independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Of its current membership, 22 earned their undergraduate degrees at Oberlin, representing 1 percent of the academy.

Oberlin has long celebrated its distinction for being among the top producers of PhDs among other liberal arts colleges. For a school of Oberlin’s size, the number of graduates who become top scientists in their field is unmatched, according to Tim Elgren, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Panel discussions will be moderated by Oberlin faculty and students, and NAS members will have an opportunity to learn about research conducted on campus. Associate Professor of Chemistry Rebecca Whelan, one of the organizers of the event, says the liberal arts values of critical inquiry, close reading, and effective communication are important for every Oberlin student, regardless of major.

“So many of our science majors get the opportunity to engage in meaningful research during their time here, cultivating their skills in identifying problems, framing hypothesis, designing experiments, interpreting results, and communicating findings,” Whelan says. “It goes without saying that our passionate, knowledgeable faculty are entirely dedicated to this work and love doing science with our undergraduates. Because of their outstanding training, Oberlin science alumni are highly sought by top graduate programs. Whether they choose some form of a science career or not, our graduates are in an excellent position to continue learning throughout their lives, and bring their knowledge to bear on problems of consequence.”

Members of the National Academy of Sciences are elected by virtue of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Membership is a widely accepted mark of excellence in science and is considered one of the highest honors that a scientist can receive. The academy totals approximately 2,250 members and nearly 440 foreign associates, of whom approximately 200 have received Nobel prizes.

The following NAS alumni will attend the symposium.

Susan A. Gelman ’80, Heinz Werner Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at the University of Michigan. Gelman earned a bachelor’s in psychology and classical Greek at Oberlin and a PhD in psychology at Stanford University. She studies concepts and language in young children. She is the author of more than 200 scholarly publications, including a prize-winning monograph, The Essential Child (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Philip C. Hanawalt ’54, Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology at Stanford University. Hanawalt earned a bachelor’s in physics at Oberlin and completed graduate study in biophysics at Yale University. He is primarily known for his discovery and characterization of DNA repair, most notably nucleotide excision repair and the dedicated pathway of transcription-coupled repair. He has been a leader in this field for many years.

Ralph R. Isberg ’77, professor of molecular biology and microbiology, Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, Tufts University. Isberg studied chemistry and biochemistry at Oberlin, and earned a PhD in microbiology at Harvard University. His research focuses on microorganisms that cause disease. He has trained more than 50 PhD and postdoctoral students.

Richard Lenski ’77, John Hannah Distinguished Professor of Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University. Lenski earned a bachelor’s in biology at Oberlin. He studies the genetic mechanisms and ecological processes that cause evolution.

Thomas M. Liggett ’65, emeritus professor of mathematics, University of California, Los Angeles. Liggett earned a bachelor’s in mathematics at Oberlin and a PhD in math at Stanford University. He spent his entire career in the UCLA math department until his retirement in 2011. His most important scientific contribution has been his role in the development of the area of interacting particle systems, and he has published two books on the subject.

Ira Mellman ’73, vice president of research oncology, Genentech. Mellman earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Oberlin and PhD in genetics at Yale University. He came to Genentech after more than 20 years as a faculty member at the Yale University School of Medicine.

J. William Schopf ’63, director of the Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, and a member of the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences and the Molecular Biology Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Schopf earned a bachelor’s in geology at Oberlin and a PhD in biology at Harvard University. His research focuses on the origin and early evolution of life, spanning the earliest 85 percent of geological time.

Charles J. Sherr ’66, M.D., PhD., principal investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Sherr earned a bachelor’s in biology at Oberlin and dual MD and PhD degrees at New York University. He became an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1988, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1995, to the National Academy of Medicine in 2004, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013, and was chosen as an inaugural fellow of the Academy of the American Association for Cancer Research in 2013.

Robert H. Singer ’66, professor and cochair of the Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and senior fellow at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Singer earned a bachelor’s in biology at Oberlin and a PhD in developmental biology at Brandeis University. His career has been focused on the cell biology of RNA, its isolation, detection, expression, and translation. He was awarded an honorary doctor of science by Oberlin College at Commencement during his 50th reunion in 2016.

Larry R. Squire ’63, distinguished professor of psychiatry, neurosciences, and psychology at the University of California School of Medicine, San Diego, and research career scientist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, San Diego. Squire earned a bachelor’s in psychology at Oberlin and a PhD in brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Squire investigates the organization and neurological foundations of memory.

Bob Wurtz ’58, National Institutes of Health. A neuroscientist, Wurtz earned a bachelor’s in chemistry at Oberlin and a PhD in physiological psychology at the University of Michigan. Wurtz has had a 50-year career with the NIH, including organizing a new laboratory, the Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research, which studies systems in the brain related to the vision and eye movements.

Larry Zipursky ’77, distinguished professor of biological chemistry, University of California, Los Angeles, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Zipursky earned a bachelor’s in chemistry at Oberlin and a PhD at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. His research focuses on cell recognition molecules underlying the specificity of synaptic connectivity.

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