LSU Biological Sciences Boyd Professor Named to American Academy of Arts & Sciences

BATON ROUGE – Meredith Blackwell, Boyd Professor of biological sciences at LSU, joins the ranks of some of the world’s most accomplished leaders from academia, business, public affairs, the humanities and the arts with election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She will be inducted at a ceremony on Oct. 6, at the academy’s headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

“I still remember when Professor C. J. Alexopoulos, my major professor at the University of Texas, received word that he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1976. He was thrilled, and I am just as thrilled in 2012,” said Blackwell. “It is wonderful to open an envelope and discover great news that is totally unexpected. Imagine me in the same club as Dirty Harry!  I can only wonder who nominated me, but I hope my deep appreciation will be discovered by him or her.”

Blackwell’s current research project, nicknamed “beetle belly yeasts,” involves isolating yeasts and other microbes from the gut of insects, especially wood-feeding beetles. Blackwell has many collaborators on this project and her work has taken her to Panama, Guatemala and Thailand.

Blackwell and her research team, which includes Ph.D. student Hector Urbina, conduct very basic research on the ecology and evolution of fungi that are associated with arthropods. The researchers want to know how the associations have evolved and are maintained, especially the intricacies of the interactions. For example, the wood-eating beetles don’t synthesize the enzymes needed to breakdown recalcitrant materials that make up plant cell walls. The beetles make up for this deficit by using enzymes made by microbes that live in their gut, similar to the way termites “eat” wood. The wood-eating animals usually let the microbes break down plant materials to simple sugars and other materials they can digest.  This process could be described as “probiotics” for beetles, much like products for lactose intolerance.

Aside from being intellectually exciting, Blackwell’s research may have industrial uses in that some of the microbes have rare enzymes that are useful in pulping wood and fermenting wood components into alcohol and other chemicals.

Blackwell’s research has been funded mostly by the National Science Foundation, or NSF, but also by the Department of Energy and the Boyd Professors research fund, for more than 30 years.
“Meredith is without question among the world’s leading scholars in the study of fungi,” said Kevin Carman, dean, LSU College of Science. “This recognition is richly deserved and indeed long overdue.”

About the Academy

Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.

One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications and studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture and education. Historical members of the academy include Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Jonas Salk, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Updike and many more distinguished scientists, statesmen and literary figures.

“Election to the academy is both an honor for extraordinary accomplishment and a call to serve,” said Leslie C. Berlowitz, president of the academy. “We look forward to drawing on the knowledge and expertise of these distinguished men and women to advance solutions to the pressing policy challenges of the day.”

Members of the 2012 class include winners of the National Medal of Science; the Lasker Award; the Pulitzer and the Shaw prizes; the Fields Medal; MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships; the Kennedy Center Honors; Grammy, Emmy, Academy and Tony awards; the Avery Fisher Prize; and election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Scientists among the newly elected Fellows include: James Fraser Stoddart, a chemist whose work helped establish the field of molecular nanotechnology; Angela M. Belcher, who uses directed evolution to create new materials and devices with applications in electronics, energy and medicine; geological scientist Katharine V. Cashman, who helped explain why volcanos erupt the way they do; Gregory B. Olson, one of the founders of computational materials design; astronomer Debra A. Fischer, who helped discover more than 200 planetary systems; Robert P. Colwell, chief architect of Intel’s Pentium microprocessors; Tyler Jacks, who exploits gene-targeting technology in mice to understand cancer in humans; oncologist Brian Druker, whose research dramatically improved survival rates for leukemia patients; mathematician Ngô Bao Châu, winner of the Fields Medal; synthetic biology pioneer Jef Boeke; psychologist Robert Seyfarth, whose field research with monkeys shed light on the evolutionary origins of language; and Griffin P. Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, whose research contributed to the first effective therapy for sickle cell anemia.

Social scientists include: economist Robert A. Moffitt, an authority on the incentives and disincentives inherent in the U.S. welfare system; Paul Mendes-Flohr, a leading scholar of modern Jewish thought and history; behavioral scientist Edward F. Diener, who pioneered methods of measuring well-being; legal scholar Shari S. Diamond, whose empirical research has influenced sentencing policy and jury selection in U.S. courts; public finance economist Amy Finkelstein, whose work has shown how the structure of government programs affects health care choices and outcomes; political scientist James Druckman, who developed influential theories of how citizens form political opinions; and George F. Bass, a pioneer in underwater archaeology.

In the humanities and the arts, new members include: Civil War scholar David. W. Blight; Vicki L. Ruiz, whose research helped establish the field of Chicano/Latino history; Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon; poet Gerald Stern; sculptor Kiki Smith; American film icons Clint Eastwood and Mel Brooks; violinist Midori Goto; pianist, conductor, and composer Andre Previn; and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.

Among those elected to the academy in public affairs and journalism are: sustainability expert Kamaljit Singh Bawa; former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen Jr.; veteran diplomat R. Nicholas Burns; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; television journalist Judy Woodruff; and Boston Globe editor Martin Baron.

Business leaders in the 2012 class include: Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos; Merck and Company Chairman, President and CEO Kenneth Frazier; Walt Disney President and CEO Robert A. Iger; civic and business leader Penny S. Pritzker; Loews Corporation President and CEO James S. Tisch; and philanthropist and retired Citigroup Chairman Sanford I. Weill.
The new class also includes the leaders of educational, cultural and philanthropic organizations including: Jared L. Cohon of Carnegie Mellon University; Melinda F. Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Steven S. Koblik of Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens; Reynold Levy of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; Carolyn A. Martin of Amherst College; and Michael A. McRobbie of Indiana University.

The academy elected 17 Foreign Honorary Members from Argentina, Canada, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. They include: Helmut Schwarz, president of Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; Dutch stem cell researcher Johannes C. Clevers; French social anthropologist Philippe Descola; British playwright and director David Hare; South African artist William Kentridge; British recording artist Paul McCartney; Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho; British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon; Argentinian commentator and politician Rodolfo Hector Terragno; and Ismail Serageldin, director of Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexendrina.

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Contact Ashley Berthelot
LSU Research Communications