Science  04 May 2007:
Vol. 316, Issue 5825, pp. 671


    STAR COMPANY. It sounds like the opening of some nerdy joke: A billionaire and a cosmologist go for a horse-drawn carriage ride. But Texas oil magnate George Mitchell and famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking did just that last month at Mitchell's 2400-hectare spread outside Houston. The unlikely bond is part of Mitchell's effort to elevate his alma mater, Texas A&M University in College Station, into the highest ranks in cosmology and theoretical physics.

    Since he met Hawking in 2002, Mitchell has donated slightly more than $50 million to support cosmology research at Texas A&M, helping to create a center for fundamental physics and endowing 10 chaired professorships. He is also chipping in $250,000 per year to support collaborations between Texas A&M researchers and Hawking and colleagues at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

    “I've been interested in cosmology since I was 15 years old, but I had to find something in which I could make a living,” says the 87-year-old Mitchell. He became a petroleum engineer and founded Mitchell Energy and Development Corp., which he sold in 2002. “George is a remarkable man,” Hawking told the Houston Chronicle last month. “He has enabled us … to attack some of the most challenging problems in cosmology.”



    NSF HONORS. Exciting, informative, possibly even bubbly: These descriptions of a chemistry demonstration also define the personality of Bassam Shakhashiri, who has spent a lifetime popularizing chemistry. On 14 May, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will bestow its Public Service Award on Shakhashiri, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for raising public understanding of science.

    As head of NSF's education directorate in the 1980s, Shakhashiri helped revive a budget slashed during the first years of the Reagan Administration. He has worked tirelessly to spread science literacy at every possible venue—from classrooms to retirement homes. He's brought his “Science Is Fun” message to radio and television, where he's known for his annual PBS program “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri.” “I urge fellow scientists to commit themselves to promoting science literacy,” he says.

    NSF is also recognizing physicist Shirley Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, for her contributions to research, education, and policy. The Vannevar Bush Award is the foundation's tribute to a lifetime of public service.


    FUELING DRUG DISCOVERY. Three researchers whose work revolutionized drug development have won one of medicine's most lucrative prizes. The $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, awarded last week, will be shared by Robert Lefkowitz, 64, of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina; Solomon Snyder, 68, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland; and Ronald Evans, 58, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California.

    The three, friends but rarely collaborators, set out several decades ago to find and characterize receptors, proteins on the inside or outside of a cell that bind to different molecules and help determine how cells behave. In the 1970s, when they began looking for receptors, there was “tremendous skepticism as to whether such things really existed,” says Lefkowitz, who trained as a cardiologist before being drawn to the lab.

    Inspired partly by President Richard Nixon's war on heroin, Snyder discovered the opioid receptor, the target of this class of drug. Lefkowitz hit on receptors for adrenaline and noradrenaline, and Evans found a key hormone receptor. Since then, other scientists have discovered hundreds more receptors that have helped drug companies craft new therapies for asthma, cancer, schizophrenia, high blood pressure, and other conditions.



    HOT STREAK. A medical doctor who turned to research, Japanese immunologist Shizuo Akira chose innate immunity as a topic 10 years ago at a time when most work in the field concentrated on acquired immunity. Today, the Osaka University researcher's name is on everybody's lips, to judge by the scientific literature.

    For the second year in a row, Akira has earned the title of Thomson Scientific's “Hottest Researcher,” thanks to authoring seven of the most highly cited scientific papers over the last 2-year period. Akira's work focuses on what are called Toll-like receptors (TLRs), which play a crucial role in the early immune response to invading pathogens. Bruce Beutler, an immunologist at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, says Akira not only created knockout mice for all 10 known TLRs but also determined the function of these receptors and showed how the signaling molecules interact. “Shizuo has been adroit in picking an emerging topic and going after it in an enviable way,” says Beutler.

    Akira laughs when asked whether he can score a third time. His main area—the signaling pathway involving TLRs—has been well explored. And he has “no idea” whether he can continue to best the competition as the field moves on to other topics.

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