UMass Amherst Distinguished Professor Lila Gierasch Elected to National Academy of Sciences

Lila M. Gierasch
Lila M. Gierasch

AMHERST, Mass. – The U.S. National Academy of Sciences announced this week the election of 100 new members to the academy in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. They include Lila M. Gierasch, distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The NAS is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists are elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research. Gierasch’s research focus for decades has been protein folding, that is, how amino acid sequence determines the three-dimensional structure of a protein. She is particularly focused on how proteins fold in the cellular environment and the role of molecular chaperones in ensuring high fidelity in the folding process.

She says of her selection, “I am thrilled by this honor. The recognition of one’s contributions over a career by colleagues is truly gratifying.”

John McCarthy, UMass Amherst provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, says of Gierasch’s career accomplishments, “This is a richly deserved honor for one of our stellar faculty members. Lila Gierasch is part of what makes this university great.”

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars established by an Act of Congress signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The academy is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists are elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research.

NAS is committed to furthering science in America, and its members are active contributors to the international scientific community. Nearly 500 members of the NAS have won Nobel Prizes. This year’s group, which also includes 25 non-voting associate members, citizens of foreign countries, brings the total number of active members to 2,347 and the total number of foreign associates to 487. The society’s journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, founded in 1914, is one of the premier international journals publishing results of original research

Gierasch’s honor is the latest in a recent series of recognition she has earned from research peers and professional societies. Last year, for example, she received the American Chemical Society’s Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry for “her seminal contributions to peptide structure and function, peptide models for protein folding and function, and roles of peptide and protein aggregation in disease.”

In 2016, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. That same year, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology named Gierasch editor in chief of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the society’s flagship journal, for a five-year term.

In 2014, Gierasch was named to the National Institutes of Health Council of Councils, established to advise the NIH director on policies and activities of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, which includes making recommendations on research that represents important areas of emerging scientific opportunities, rising public health challenges or knowledge gaps that deserve special emphasis or would otherwise benefit from strategic planning and coordination.

Most recently, Gierasch was recognized for her “outstanding contributions to peptide science” by the American Peptide Society (APS). She will formally receive its lifetime achievement honor, the Merrifield Award, at a ceremony at the society’s annual meeting in Monterey, California, in June.

Gierasch holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Mount Holyoke College and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University. She started her academic research career at Amherst College in 1974 and moved in 1979 to the University of Delaware, where she rose to full professor. In 1988, she assumed the Robert A. Welch Chair in Biochemistry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where she founded the graduate program in molecular biophysics. Gierasch came to UMass Amherst in 1994 to lead the Chemistry Department and in 1999 became head of the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Department until 2005.