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Two U professors elected to National Academy of Sciences

Valeria Molinero, distinguished professor of chemistry, and Erik Jorgensen, distinguished professor the School of Biological Sciences, were elected as members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Valeria Molinero, distinguished professor of chemistry, and Erik Jorgensen, distinguished professor at the School of Biological Sciences, were elected May 3 as members of the National Academy of Sciences. Both are faculty members in the U’s College of Science.

Molinero and Jorgensen are among 120 U.S. scientist-scholars and 30 foreign associates elected at the Academy’s Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. They join 15 other current University of Utah researchers who’ve been elected to the Academy. The National Academies, which also include the National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Medicine, recognizes scholars and researchers for significant achievements in their fields and advise the federal government and other organizations about science, engineering and health policy. With today’s elections, the number of National Academy of Sciences members stands at 2,512, with 517 foreign associates.

Meet Valeria Molinero

Valeria Molinero

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Molinero is the Jack and Peg Simons Endowed Professor of Theoretical Chemistry and the director of the Henry Eyring Center for Theoretical Chemistry. She is a theoretical chemist and uses computer and statistical models to explore the science of how crystals form and how matter changes from one phase to another down to the atomic scale.

Much of her work has involved the transition between water and ice and how that transition occurs in the formation of clouds, in insects with antifreeze proteins, and in food products, especially those containing sugars. Her work has implications for any process in which control of the formation and growth of ice crystals is critical, including snowmaking at ski resorts, protection of crops from freezing, preservation of human organs and tissue for transplant, and production of ice cream and gelato, her favorite food. In 2020, she and her international colleagues demonstrated that the smallest possible nanodroplet of water that can freeze into ice is around 90 molecules, a finding that earned them the 2020 Cozzarelli Prize from the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and recipient of several U awards, including the Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award in 2019, the Extraordinary Faculty Achievement Award in 2016, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in 2012 and the College of Science Myriad Faculty Award for Research Excellence in 2011. She has also been honored by the Beckman Foundation with its Young Investigator Award, and by the International Association for the Properties of Water and Steam with its Helmholtz Award.
She heard about her election between the news of a new publication with postdoctoral scholar Debdas Dhabal and preparations for a doctoral student’s dissertation defense. She received a phone call from colleague Dale Poulter, a distinguished professor emeritus and National Academy of Sciences member, to announce her election. “I was shocked,” she says. “To say it was a surprise would not do it justice. It was fantastic.”
Minutes later, she went into the dissertation defense, reflecting on the range of accomplishments represented by the publication, the election and the defense. “All the research is made essentially there, in the work of the students and postdocs,” she says. “There’s satisfaction that comes from seeing someone grow from the beginning of the Ph.D. into an accomplished researcher.”

Meet Erik Jorgensen

Erik Jorgensen

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Jorgensen is a juggernaut in neuroscience research and a prolific collaborator across disciplines; he is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and holds adjunct positions in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and in the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics. His lab’s innovative approach to understanding the brain has helped push neuroscience forward. Jorgensen’s research explores the connections between neurons, known as synapses. While explaining his work, Jorgensen, a geneticist who studies the synapse, can transport you to an almost galactic place–the observable universe of the brain.

“Synapses are contacts between nerve cells in your brain. Think of all the stars you can see on a moonless night. Multiply that by 100 billion. That’s how many synapses you have that can hold and process a lot of information,” Jorgensen has said. “Your grandmother lives there, your childhood friends, embarrassment, fear, love, and hate.”

Jorgensen focuses on the molecular machinery that makes synaptic transmission work. Nerve cells store neurotransmitters in tiny packets, known as synaptic vesicles. Synaptic vesicles fuse to the cell wall of another neuron and releases its neurotransmitters, depleting the vesicle in the process before creating new ones. In addition to studying synaptic vesicle fusion and regeneration, Jorgensen also develops tools for others investigating massively complex neural networks. He and his lab are creating methods to help geneticists manipulate the genomes of model organisms such as nematodes C. elegans, creating ways to use super-resolution microscopy to track single proteins, and utilizing electron microscopy to capture cellular events in real time. As of 2020, Jorgensen has been a collaborator in the National Science Foundation-funded Neuronex 2 Project,  where he and collaborator Brian Jones focus on the neural connections in the retina. Jorgensen and Jones are part of a collection of teams receiving more than $50 million over five years as part of the NSF’s Next Generation Networks for Neuroscience program (NeuroNex). A total of 70 researchers, representing four countries, will investigate aspects of how brains work and interact with the environment around them.

“We need to be able to see them,” he said. “to study their architecture, and track the proteins in the synapse. How can we do that? It ends up that light is too big to see the structure of a synapse…That is why we use a different subatomic particle-an electron-to visualize the structure of the synapse. We use electron microscopes.”

Past and present U researchers in the National Academies

Below are lists of current or former University of Utah faculty elected to one or more of the National Academies. Note that some were elected before or after their tenure at the university, and that some have died since their election.

National Academy of Sciences: Brenda Bass, Cynthia Burrows, Mario Capecchi, Dana Carroll, Thure Cerling, James Ehleringer, Kristen Hawkes, James O’Connell, Baldomero “Toto” Olivera, C. Dale Poulter, Peter Stang, Wesley Sundquist, Polly Wiessner, Henry Harpending, Jesse D. Jennings, Cheves Walling, Sidney Velick, John R. Roth, Josef Michl, Ray White, Julian Steward, Jeremy Sabloff, Henry Eyring and Louis Goodman and Mary C. Beckerle.

National Academy of Engineering: Jindrich Kopecek, R. Peter King, Adel Sarofim, Sung Wan Kim, Gerald Stringfellow, Donald Dahlstrom, George Hill, Jan D. Miller, Milton E. Wadsworth, Thomas G. Stockham, John Herbst, Stephen C. Jacobsen, Willem J. Kolff, Alex G. Oblad, Anil Virkar and William A. Hustrulid.

National Academy of Medicine: Mario Capecchi, Wendy Chapman, Sung Wan Kim, Vivian Lee, Baldomero “Toto” Olivera, Stephen C. Jacobsen, Eli Adashi, Paul D. Clayton and Homer R. Warner.