UO molecular biologist Alice Barkan is elected to the AAAS

Alice Barkan in greenhouse

Alice Barkan, a UO molecular biologist who uses plant systems to answer fundamental biological questions, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Barkan joins 251 other new members from diverse fields, including paleontology, probability theory, space science and economics. In addition to scholars and scientists, the academy recognizes artists, activists, philanthropists and leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. Previously elected members include Benjamin Franklin, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and immunologist Anthony Fauci.

 “I feel enormously honored to be recognized in this way and grateful to the many talented members of my lab over the years who have been stimulating collaborators on our collective scientific journey,” Barkan said.

A professor in UO’s Department of Biology and the Institute of Molecular Biology, Barkan studies the genes required for photosynthesis, the process carried out by plants that produce the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe. Her work has uncovered new mechanisms of gene regulation that are now being applied to the production of biofuels and plant-based pharmaceuticals.

Last year Barkan was elected into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences for her work on the biogenesis of chloroplasts, the site of photosynthesis. A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she is also the recipient of the Lawrence Bogorad Award for Excellence in Plant Biology from the American Society of Plant Biologists. She received a UO Faculty Excellence Award in 2018 and a UO Outstanding Career Research Award in 2020.

Barkan is a former director of the Institute of Molecular Biology, as well as the UO’s National Institutes of Health-sponsored Genetics Training Program, where she oversaw the training of promising graduate students from biology, chemistry and math.

“An outstanding researcher and mentor, Alice Barkan has made a lasting impact in her field and with her students,” said Cass Moseley, interim vice president for research and innovation. “She continues to inspire us all through her diligent, collaborative approach to her research examining the mechanisms underlying photosynthesis, and we are thrilled to see her receive this latest recognition.”

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock and others to honor exceptionally accomplished individuals. Its dual mission is to elect members from diverse fields who can share ideas and recommendations to help shape the future of the arts, democracy, education, global affairs and science to advance the public good.

This year’s list of new members includes New York Times journalist Kara Swisher, neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta and entertainer Oprah Winfrey.

UO biologist Karen Guillemin, who was elected into the academy in 2020 for her pioneering zebrafish research, said Barkan has made an impact on her field through her mechanistic insights.

“Her lab’s pioneering work on pentatricopeptide repeat proteins has advanced our understanding of how proteins interact in a sequence specific manner with nucleic acids, knowledge that forms the basis for sequence specific engineering of gene expression,” Guillemin said.

Barkan, who was profiled in a story last month on UO women researchers in STEM fields, received her undergraduate degree in biology from MIT in 1978, and earned a doctorate in molecular biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1983. She was a postdoctoral fellow in plant molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley and joined the UO in 1991.

Researchers in Barkan’s lab use thousands of genetic corn stocks to study the cooperation between two genomes of distinct evolutionary origin inside cells — the small chloroplast genome and the large nuclear genome — to produce a chloroplast that is responsive to environmental and developmental cues. The Barkan Lab has generated thousands of valuable genetic stocks of maize that are shared as a public resource with other plant biologists throughout the world.

Barkan is one of 15 current or retired UO faculty members who have been honored as fellows of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In all, 21 UO faculty members, including five who are deceased and three who have since left the UO, have been selected by the academy, beginning with Peter H. von Hippel in 1979. They’ve come from the fields of anthropology, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, law, physics and psychology.

By Lewis Taylor, University Communications