Nine Rutgers Professors Named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
They are among 506 scientists, engineers and innovators recognized for their achievements
Rutgers faculty elected to the newest class of fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are engaging in research to enhance our understanding of the universe, prepare the world to address climate change and find ways to restore brain function after traumatic injury or disease.
Their work demonstrates the breadth of ongoing research at the university that is changing the world and making a difference in people’s lives. The nine faculty members are working to bring critical research tools to scientists worldwide, help us better understand our ecosystems from the oceans to the role pollinators play in our food supply and improve the way we communicate about risk.
“Rutgers’ newest fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science exemplify the excellence of our faculty,” said Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway. “Their scholarly achievements, as recognized by their peers, fulfill the AAAS mission to advance science, engineering and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people and honor Rutgers’ mission to serve the common good.”
Rutgers' AAAS fellows are among 506 scientists, engineers and innovators spanning 24 scientific disciplines ranging from research, teaching and technology, to administration in academia, industry and government, to excellence in communicating and interpreting science to the public.
AAAS, the world's largest multidisciplinary scientific society and a leading publisher of cutting-edge research through its Science family of journals, announced the newest members of the class of fellows on Jan. 31. It is among the most distinct honors within the scientific community.
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences
Honored for distinguished contributions to advancements in the life sciences, particularly in understanding the molecular mechanism of messenger ribonucleic acid (RNA) translation and trace element metabolism
For two decades, Paul Copeland has been researching how much selenium, a trace mineral the body needs to protect against cell damage and infection, is required as a dietary source for human embryonic development and good health.
This powerful antioxidant – found in seafood, lean meat, pasta, rice, eggs, cooked spinach and broccoli – can protect against chronic conditions such as cancer and heart disease. Too much selenium, however, can cause kidney and heart failure as well as other health problems.
Copeland, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS), and an international team of scientists have determined the process for incorporating selenium – which is found in soil, water and some foods and increases antioxidant effects in the body – into 25 specialized proteins. This discovery could lead to new therapies to treat a multitude of diseases from cancer to diabetes.
“The recent discovery that some types of cancer require selenium for survival opens up an entirely new path for therapeutic development," he said. "My lab is currently involved in a broad collaborative effort to identify such therapies."
After decades of studying how selenium works, Copeland and his team are investigating the link between selenium and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. While scientists have determined a connection between selenium and these disorders, the exact cause and effect is not known.
Beyond his research, Copeland is an associate dean for research and director of the RWJMS M.D.-Ph.D. program, but he is most proud of the accomplishments of the students who were trained in his lab.
“I have been fortunate to have had amazing trainees, and I like to think I played a small part in helping them achieve their career goals,” he said.
– Patti Zielinski
Associate Research Professor
Institute for Quantitative Biomedicine
Member, Cancer Pharmacology, Cancer Institute of New Jersey
Honored for distinguished contributions and innovations in molecular visualization education for teachers, undergraduates and the public
When it comes to biomolecules like proteins, DNA and RNA, Shuchismita Dutta is a fan of “seeing is believing.”
A structural biologist and an educator, Dutta works with her colleagues to engage diverse audiences in exploring the three-dimensional (3D) shapes and interactions of biomolecules. Specifically, she teaches students, educators and researchers how to use data from the Protein Data Bank (PDB), an international repository for biomolecular structural data.
As a part of the RCSB Protein Data Bank team, based in the Institute for Quantitative Biomedicine at Rutgers, Dutta leads the development of tutorials and detailed documentation for accessing data from the PDB. This helps scientists worldwide make optimal use of PDB data to further their research.
Supported by the National Science Foundation, Dutta collaborates with educators nationwide to develop open-access lessons and case studies exploring the molecular bases of various topics, such as why an individual living with sickle cell disease experiences acute pain or why tea and coffee plants make caffeine.
The computer-generated 3D models of proteins, nucleic acids and other biomolecules “can be used by educators to provide students a deeper understanding of the topic being studied,” said Dutta, who added that the lessons and case studies are available online and used in classrooms nationwide and in more than 65 countries.
Dutta is interested in learning how different audiences engage with biomolecular visualization. In the past few years, she has collaborated with educators, health care providers, patients, caregivers and general audiences to include molecular images in developing workshop materials and videos for community education.
“I am proud that we were able to interact with our target audiences to understand and address their specific needs,” said Dutta.
As for what’s next, Dutta said she’s excited about “interacting with new and different user communities, like plant biologists and environmental scientists, to understand how their research interests can be supported by molecular structural data.”
– Mike Lucas
Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience
School of Arts and Sciences
Honored for distinguished contributions to the field of molecular and cellular neuroscience, particularly for understanding the development of and strategies to repair damaged neural circuits
Bonnie Firestein has been researching the brain for decades, seeking to understand why it stops working correctly after a traumatic injury – like a concussion or stroke – or a neurodegenerative disease – like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.
She wants to know what can be done to stop brain cells from dying in order to prevent further brain damage, what drugs might be used to preserve brain function and how to make sure the brain works properly after disease.
“What I think is most important is that we are now taking the study of basic biology to discover new compounds and treatments in the laboratory to help people with traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative disease,” said Firestein, a professor in cell biology and neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences.
In her lab, Firestein studies neuronal communication in the brain, particularly sites on nerve cells, called synapses, that allow the nerve cells to communicate. She looks at the role genes play in brain development, which may explain the biological process of neurodegenerative diseases.
With diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Firestein and researchers in her lab are identifying human biomarkers in cells and fluids from the body that could indicate a condition or a disease. “This could make it much easier to diagnose the condition in individuals and tailor personalized medicine,” she said.
Last year, Firestein was the first nonengineer biologist at Rutgers named a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, which recognizes the most accomplished individuals in the fields of medical and biological engineering. She considers bringing together the students and postdoctoral researchers who have worked in her lab during her 22-plus years at Rutgers one of her most important accomplishments. This includes the six undergraduate, one M.S. and six Ph.D. students there now, the 19 Ph.D. students who have gone on to work in the field and the more than 70 undergraduate students who have been part of the team over the past two decades.
“Science is not something you do in a vacuum,” Firestein said. “One person can’t discover everything; it takes a team.”
– Robin Lally
Professor and Chair
Department of Human Ecology
School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
Honored for distinguished contributions to the field of risk analysis, risk assessment and risk communication, and for educating the public on important scientific issues
For more than three decades, William Hallman has examined people’s perceptions of the risks associated with food, technology, health and the environment.
Hallman began his work studying environmental justice issues, working with an African American community living next to a hazardous waste dump in South Carolina.
Since joining the Rutgers faculty, he and his team have examined how people view other environmental risks like radon, air and water pollution and climate change.
He has also examined what people think about germs, bioterrorism, Lyme disease, mad cow disease, avian influenza, Zika virus, COVID-19 and other health issues.
“The goal is to understand how people think about risks, so we can do a better job of communicating about them,” Hallman said.
A psychologist and chair of the Department of Human Ecology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Hallman collaborates with colleagues in the social, physical, biological, environmental and medical sciences. He also advises federal and international agencies.
Much of his work focuses on foods. In the early 1990s, Hallman published one of the first studies examining public perceptions of genetically modified foods and, most recently, has looked at how cell-cultured meat, poultry and seafood products should be labeled.
He has also worked to improve communications about food safety and food recalls and has been involved in addressing issues of food insecurity and nutrition, looking at how people perceive nutritional benefits of protein, seafood, green tea, organic produce and vegetarian diets.
“A common attribute of the risks I study is that the things that people worry about – or fail to pay attention to – are generally invisible: bacteria and viruses, parasites, chemicals, electric and magnetic fields, radiation, etc.,” Hallman said. “My job is really to help make the invisible visible in ways that get people to take appropriate actions, including those people who would prefer not to look, or try hard not to see.”
– Robin Lally
Professor of Physics and Astronomy
School of Arts and Sciences
Honored for his contributions to the study of Type Ia supernovae, including significant insights on their intrinsic properties and their use as cosmological probes
One of the hardest aspects of astrophysics is determining how far away things are in space relative to Earth. Saurabh W. Jha works to address this cosmic conundrum.
Jha studies light from a unique exploding star, a Type Ia supernova (SN Ia). Because these stars explode with a similar luminosity every time – what’s known as a “standard candle” in astronomy – they make ideal tools for calculating astronomical distances, data that can then be used for studying other aspects of the cosmos, such as how fast the universe is expanding.
“This is important because it tells us how old the universe is and what it is made of,” Jha said.
Finding a SN Ia isn’t easy. For starters, they’re rare, occurring only about once every 500 years in a galaxy like our Milky Way. Moreover, these stars can only be observed after they explode, Jha said, so finding them requires scanning thousands of galaxies with ground- and space-based telescopes.
Once a SN Ia is discovered, researchers only have a few months before its light fades too much to be useful.
Like the universe itself, Jha’s expertise is always growing. As a graduate student at Harvard, he was part of a team that discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, research that won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011. Today, he leads a team working to understand the properties of the stars they chase. (Astronomers don’t know why Type Ia supernovae explode with consistent brightness – about 10 billion times brighter than our Sun – only that they do).
Jha’s group uses data from Rutgers’ share of the Southern African Large Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope and, most recently, the James Webb Space Telescope.
“It’s a privilege to be able to do curiosity-driven research,” said Jha. “We do this not because it will change daily lives, but because humans are by our very nature explorers. We want to learn about the universe, see light from millions of years ago, see stars that were exploding billions of years ago, understand how the universe is evolving, how galaxies are forming – and just maybe, to learn more about how we got here.”
– Gregory Bruno
Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
School of Arts and Sciences
Honored for distinguished contributions to the field of climate science, particularly using statistical process modeling to estimate sea level change
Looking back is an essential part of moving forward, according to climate and sea-level scientist Robert E. Kopp.
Kopp’s research focuses on how our environment has changed over geological time and how this relates to current and future climate change. For example, his research group’s work has shown that global sea level rise in the last century has been faster than in any century in at least 3,000 years.
“People are already experiencing the effects of climate change, and those effects will continue to grow worse until we address them,” said Kopp, who also is a director of the Climate Impact Lab, a nonprofit research organization. “We need to make decisions now about how we will limit future climate change and its impacts.”
In addition to looking to the past, Kopp investigates issues such as how warming oceans and melting ice sheets drive different rates of future sea level rise across the world, and how to characterize the uncertainty in these forecasts.
His group’s work forecasting future sea level change has been a major component of two recent national climate assessments and is used by states throughout the nation. Kopp, who recently was named a co-chair of the new National Academies Roundtable on Macroeconomics and Climate-Related Risks and Opportunities, also helped lead the development of sea-level rise projections in the most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
As a climate policy scholar, Kopp considers how climate change data supports decision-making at different scales – from how local governments plan land use to how the federal government incorporates climate change costs into regulatory frameworks.
Kopp is the principal investigator of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH), a $20 million, 13-institution, National Science Foundation-led grant studying how risks from rising seas, shifting storms, eroding coastlines and changing development patterns interact and shape climate vulnerability in complex, urbanized regions such as the area surrounding Rutgers, extending from New York City through New Jersey to Philadelphia.
In addition to his research, Kopp codirects Rutgers’ University Office of Climate Action, which provides oversight and accountability for Rutgers’ Climate Action Plan. Through both MACH and the Office of Climate Action, Kopp hopes to help Rutgers build a global-leading model of campus-community-government partnership for climate action.
– Megan Florance
Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources
School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
Honored for distinguished contributions to the field of marine biology, particularly for predictions about the impacts of climate change and population dynamics
Malin Pinsky is fascinated by how and why ocean life is changing – and what we can do to ensure abundant wildlife and healthy ecosystems for everyone.
Ocean research is experiencing a revolution, he said, as new data is becoming available like never before. As a result, Pinsky’s lab is challenged with examining this new data to understand why our oceans are changing. The broader goal of this work is to help design marine conservation strategies and fishery-management approaches that are resilient to changing climates.
“Climate change is driving fish and other species to move hundreds of miles, and we need to understand these changes – where species are found, which species interact and which genes flourish within species – so that we can adapt and sustain ocean life,” said Pinsky, an associate professor at Rutgers-New Brunswick in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources.
“Society relies on the ocean, including the more than 3 billion people alive today who get critical nutrition from fish," he said. "My goal is to understand and forecast these changes, including which species are most at risk of extinction.”
The ecologist and evolutionary biologist has helped raise awareness about the impacts of climate change on ocean life, including briefings on Capitol Hill and working closely with conservation groups and fisheries managers. In the process, he has learned that marine species are among the most vulnerable to climate change.
Pinsky is interested in exploring whether and how marine life can evolve to withstand climate change in the future. Researchers such as Pinsky are starting to use DNA sequencing to reveal how and where evolution is happening and whether it can help save species.
Evolution was long considered a very slow process, but recent advances in genome technology make it clear that evolution also happens quickly, Pinsky said.
Pinsky is a member of the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a member of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources. His past research includes studies examining adaptation to climate change in temperate marine fish and fisheries, larval dispersal in coral reef fish to inform marine reserve design and seal population dynamics in response to climate change and hunting.
– Megan Florance
Distinguished Professor and Vice Chair
Department of Management Science and Information Systems
Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick
Honored for distinguished contributions to the fields of privacy protection in data analytics, information sharing and access control management
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, public health officials endorsed symptom-tracking apps that helped them monitor viral transmission. Unfortunately, as Jaideep Vaidya demonstrated, these apps collected and stored data in ways that made user identification possible.
“Simply anonymizing data, which is what they were doing, rarely guarantees privacy. You need more sophisticated protections,” Vaidya said. “The challenge is protecting privacy – and preventing other bad uses for data – without also preventing the good uses for data. That’s what I try to do.”
After identifying the privacy issues, Vaidya worked with colleagues at Rutgers to develop an alternate app that let health authorities track COVID-19 hotspots while guaranteeing that no health data could be connected to individual users.
“I’m proud that we were able to solve a novel data protection problem and produce the app, which is called COVID Nearby, in less than a year,” said Vaidya, who noted that the same tools could be redeployed much faster for software designed to monitor the spread of other infectious diseases.
Vaidya also is proud of a model he co-developed with a grad student that solves a tricky problem: allowing database users to search for unusual data points, those that lie outside typical distributions, without allowing them to associate that data with identifiable people.
Looking forward, Vaidya plans to study ways to protect genomic and other multimodal data without diminishing the value of such data in promoting medical research or guiding patient treatment.
– Andrew Smith
Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources
School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
Honored for distinguished contributions to the field of ecosystem services, particularly for her substantial contributions to pollination ecology and conservation
Rachael Winfree has spent more than two decades collecting data on pollinators, mostly bees, which fertilize almost 90 percent of the world’s wild plants and 75 percent of global food crops. The role of these pollinators is crucial to making it possible for plants to reproduce, survive and feed the world’s population.
“The world would be a very different place without pollinators,” said Winfree. “Humanity relies on ecosystem services for our survival, so understanding where these services come from is important.”
Her research focuses on understanding the relationship between humans and pollinators – which besides bees include birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps and small mammals – and in particular how pollinators are affected by land use and climate change.
Many of these pollinators are in sharp decline, which could lead to a loss of fruits and vegetables throughout the world. While pesticides and loss of habitat have taken a toll on bees and other pollinators, it seems likely that climate change will be the largest factor in the future.
Winfree and her team of postdoctoral researchers and doctoral students have recently begun research on the bee species that live in the forests of eastern North America. “These forest species are not well-studied and are currently excluded from pollinator conservation planning due to lack of information about their habitat needs,” said Winfree. “Something I would like to do in the future is to find out how habitat management for forest pollinators can be combined with management for increased carbon storage by forests. Restoring forests is going to be a key part of slowing climate change, because trees absorb CO2 and store carbon.”
One of her most rewarding roles at Rutgers, she said, has been teaching and mentoring doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers – the next generation of scientists – who have gone on from her lab group to productive scientific careers at universities around the world.
“Over the past 20 years my research group has collected some of the highest quality datasets in the world on bee pollinators and the plants they pollinate,” Winfree said. “Empirical data collection is the basis of good science, so I’m proud of this contribution.”
– Robin Lally