AAAS names WSU researchers Fellows

The American Association for the Advancement of Science honors five WSU researchers.

By Kaitlin Gillespie

Five WSU researchers were named Fellows by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

According to the AAAS website, the international association was founded in 1848 and serves 262 societies and academies of science. The group seeks to enhance communication among the world’s scientists and promote the responsible use of science in public policy.

A Fellow is a “member whose efforts on behalf of the advancement of science or its applications are scientifically or socially distinguished.” The AAAS Council elected 503 members as 2010 Fellows among 24 categories.

Provost Warwick M. Bayly was named in the section on agriculture, food and renewable resources. Professor of veterinary microbiology and pathology Terry McElwain was named in the section on medical sciences. William Morgan, adjunct faculty at WSU Tri-Cites and director of Radiation Biology and Biophysics at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and professors of molecular biosciences Raymond Reeves and Michael Smerdon were named in the section on biological sciences.

Reeves and Smerdon have both completed work in the field of DNA repair. Reeves focuses on how the structure of DNA and proteins affect the components of normal cells versus cancer cells, while Smerdon focuses on the causes behind genetic defects that hinder DNA repair.

Reeves said he first became interested in science as a child, when a teacher inspired him to become a teacher himself. He originally planned on being an astronomer but became interested in biology and chemistry during his time at the University of California, Berkeley.

“After that I went on to Oxford and Cambridge in the U.K. and did post graduate work there, and that’s where I started getting interested in my current field,” he said.

Reeves researches the structure of DNA within the cell, specifically their relationship with proteins. Proteins in cancer cells have different structures than those of normal cells. Reeves’ lab focused on the protein HGMA, which has the ability to bond to and change the structure of DNA without the use of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP.

“It turned out this protein was involved in gene regulation,” Reeves said. “It was different than anything else that had been studied.”

The gene required to build this protein is often over-expressed in cancers. Reeves said the research might lead to new treatments for cancer and slow the spread of the disease.

“Maybe we can design specific drugs that will inhibit the protein so that we can maybe reverse the cancer,” he said.

Reeves said he and Smerdon have worked together on how chromatin affects DNA repair.

“It’s been very synergetic and helpful,” Reeves said.

Smerdon came to WSU in 1980 from Washington University in St. Louis, where he completed his post-doctorate. He started working in the chemistry program, but is now in the molecular biology lab.

He said he focuses on the causes of genetic defects that limit DNA repair, specifically how DNA repair is influenced by the way it is packaged in cells.

“There are individuals that suffer from genetic defects in certain aspects of DNA repair,” he said.

Smerdon said proteins remove any damages, such as sunburns or radiation, to the DNA structure. Those that lack such proteins are unable to repair their DNA and have considerably shorter life spans.

“Without repair, you can have growth defects, you can have mental retardation even,” he said.

He said the research might help open the door to new forms of genetic therapy to reverse the failure of repair proteins.

Both Reeves and Smerdon said they heard about their selection over winter break.

Smerdon said he was humbled by his selection, and he believes he and his colleagues’ awards are positive news for the university, particularly with budget struggles.

“If nothing else, it helps boost the morale a little bit,” he said.

Reeves said he was honored to be recognized by his peers.

“This is basically an award for WSU,” he said. “This is a nurturing institution that will allow scientists to make contributions that will be recognized in the country and the world.”

All AAAS Fellows will be recognized on Feb. 19 at the Fellows Forum during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

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