2013-14 Report to the Division

Committee on Faculty Research Lecture
2013-14 Report to the Division
May 1, 2014
On March 31, 2014, Divisional Council endorsed the nominations of the
Committee on Faculty Research Lecture for the 2015 Martin Meyerson Berkeley
Faculty Research Lectures. The distinguished 2015 Lecturers are:
Professor Jennifer Doudna of the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology
Professor Montgomery Slatkin of the Department of Integrative Biology
The nomination letter follows.
Leslie Kurke
2013-14 Chair, Committee on Faculty Research Lecture
Gladys Rehard Wood Chair and
Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature
7233 DWINELLE HALL # 2520
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March 21, 2014
Elizabeth Deakin
Chair, Berkeley Division, Academic Senate
Leslie Kurke
Chair, Committee on Faculty Research Lecture
Nominations of Martin Meyerson Berkeley Faculty Research Lecturers for 2015
The Committee on Faculty Research Lecture met on February 19, 2014 to consider nominations
from many disciplines at the University. Our charge was to find two distinguished scholars whose
research has opened up new fields or made distinctive and original contributions to existing fields.
We looked as well for candidates who were nationally and internationally recognized and who
represent the distinctive and distinguished research that takes place across the disciplines here and
which has established our reputation for excellence throughout the world. In addition, we
considered the ability of the candidates to present an exciting lecture to a broad audience.
The committee unanimously recommends that the 2015 Martin Meyerson Berkeley Faculty
Research Lectures be delivered by Jennifer Doudna of the Department of Molecular & Cell
Biology and Montgomery Slatkin of the Department of Integrative Biology. This represents a
somewhat unorthodox choice, in that both of the recommended scholars are in the sciences (indeed,
both in biology!). But this was the result of the fact that we had an exceptionally strong pool of
nominees this year in the sciences, and that both of the scholars recommended for next year have
recently made extraordinary, breakthrough discoveries—discoveries that it seems timely to
acknowledge right now (see more extensive discussion of each below). The committee also felt
that the work of these two scholars was nicely complementary: Slatkin has made a remarkable
discovery of content, about the nature and origins of humanity itself, whereas Doudna has created
a remarkable tool to manipulate genetic material in living cells with great precision. And while it is
unusual to have two lecturers in one year from the same side of the Humanities-Social Sciences vs.
Sciences divide, it is not unprecedented: the committee notes similar configurations for the years
1974 (both speakers scientists) and 1983 (both speakers from Humanities-Social Sciences). The
committee reasoned that this was a unique opportunity to recognize and celebrate new discoveries
of unparalleled importance, while we are also committed to redressing the balance in the near
future, possibly even next year, with two Humanities-Social Sciences nominations if worthy
candidates are put forward by their departments.
Montgomery (Monty) Slatkin studies the genetics of human populations, thereby aiming to
understand patterns and processes relating to genetic variation among individuals. Slatkin is a
founder of the field of modern population genetics, which provides the theoretical basis of
evolutionary theory and is also at the core of much modern research in human disease genetics.
Thus, for example, Slatkin’s work has been very important in understanding the distribution and
Leslie Kurke
4331 Dwinelle Hall
Tel. 510-642-2054
email: kurke@berkeley.edu
spread of viral pathogens such as HIV. In addition, he has been instrumental in the development
of methods and theory that have allowed medical researchers to make more powerful designs
when detecting mutations underlying heritable diseases such as Type II Diabetes and several
psychiatric disorders.
Slatkin is also well-known for his analysis of human genetic diversity and the development of
methods to reconstruct the migration patterns of early human populations. He has most recently
applied these methods to understand interbreeding events between ancient (Neanderthals and
Denisovans) and modern humans. Slatkin’s research group was part of an international team that
“resurrected” the Neanderthal genome. Although long extinct, it was possible to obtain complete
genome sequence information using DNA extracted from the toe bone of a human fossil that dates
back 50,000 years. The analysis of the Neanderthal genome resolved a long-standing controversy,
namely, was there interbreeding between ancient and modern humans? The answer is a definitive
yes: approximately 2% of the genes in our genomes are derived from ancient human populations
that were thought to be extinct. Slatkin and his students played a major role in this unexpected
and startling revelation about our origins.
Slatkin’s groundbreaking research has garnered him a host of prizes and honors. Just a couple of
examples: in 2000, he received the Sewall Wright Award of the American Society of Naturalists,
and in 2009-10, in recognition of his fundamental analyses of the newly sequenced Neanderthal
genome, he was awarded the Newcomb Cleveland Prize of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science. Finally, Slatkin is by all accounts an excellent communicator, wellknown for his elegant, witty, and accessible public lectures.
Jennifer Doudna studies small RNAs that control a variety of developmental and disease
processes in animal cells and bacteria. She is well known for her studies of “catalytic” RNAs that
function as enzymes. Early in her career, Doudna elucidated the structures of protein enzymes,
such as Dicer, that are responsible for the genesis of small RNAs. For these achievements Doudna
was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2002. Since then she has had an even greater
impact on the biomedical research community by discovering how bacteria use small RNAs to
protect themselves against infections. In particular, Doudna and her students collaborated with
Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umea University to characterize Cas9, an enzyme that uses small
RNAs to recognize and alter specific DNA sequences within any plant or animal genome. In a
period of just two years, the so-called CRISPR system developed from this research has become the
method of choice for “genome editing,” the controlled, rational modification of genetic
information. The method is powerful and transformative; over 400 scientific papers on the CRISPR
method have been published since Charpentier and Doudna first announced their findings in
August 2012.
Doudna’s extraordinary discoveries have already been recognized by her election to the National
Academy of Sciences (2002), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2003), the American
Association for the Advancement of Science (2008), and the Institute of Medicine of the National
Academies (2010). She is also the recipient of multiple national and international awards,
culminating most recently in the 2014 Lurie Prize in the Biomedical Sciences from the Foundation
for the National Institutes of Health. We feel Berkeley should be “ahead of the curve” in
acknowledging Doudna’s remarkable discovery before others do. Doudna’s colleagues and letterwriters emphasize that she is a dynamic and effective speaker, who will give an exciting lecture on
her recent pathbreaking discovery.
In sum: we are proud to be able to recommend two such remarkable scholars as Martin Meyerson
Berkeley Faculty Research Lecturers for 2015.