Association Affairs

AAAS President Claire Fraser begins a year-long term

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Science  28 Feb 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6481, pp. 991-993
DOI: 10.1126/science.367.6481.991

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Claire Fraser introduces AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle.

PHOTO: ROBB COHEN PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEO

Claire Fraser began her scientific research on the banks of upstate New York's Lake George and over the years progressed to a commanding role in the emerging field of microbial genomics.

Throughout an acclaimed career that helped launch the field of microbial genomics, she has somehow reserved time for adventures outside of the scientific realm: sailboat racing when younger and now competitive ballroom dancing, alongside long-standing commitments to the scientific enterprise that include her new role as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Fraser was a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when she took on her first independent research project, examining why and how the ecology of the Lake George region was being disturbed.

Algae blooms had begun to take hold of water surfaces, pesticide runoff was flowing into waterways, and plants and fish were dying at a time when agricultural compounds were increasingly in use.

She collected water and soil samples and, in the laboratory, hunted for bacteria able to break down agricultural pollutants, a process known as bioremediation—now widely used to address many types of water contamination.

Fraser identified a species of bacteria that could be used to counteract the pollutants, but the project's 1-year time limit dictated a premature ending. Still, the introduction to research was rewarding for a soon-to-be college graduate with two targets in sight: a bachelor of science degree in biology and the option of medical school.

“I remember thinking, ‘how cool is this?’” said Fraser, now director of the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “That's what has always driven me: just the sheer joy of knowing that when you set up a new experiment, when you're trying something new, and when it works, you're seeing something for the first time. That's so great.”

From the start, Fraser welcomed the all-consuming nature of research and the exhilaration she drew from witnessing even incremental results, factors that convinced her to bypass medical school and pursue what became a globally recognized scientific research career that continues to reverberate through the scientific enterprise today.

The University of Maryland School of Medicine has described her as someone who knows “as much about bacteria as anyone in the world.”

On 17 February, the day following the close of the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington, Fraser began a 1-year term as president of AAAS, a position that will be followed by another 1-year term as chair of the AAAS Board of Directors in 2021.

Among contributions during her presidency, Fraser will help set the theme of the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting slated to take place in Phoenix, Arizona. She is also looking forward to assisting AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh, a structural biologist with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, to “formulate a 21st-century strategic vision” for the organization.

Fraser believes, as she put it in a recent University of Maryland video, that one of the highest priorities for the scientific community is to work hard to reverse “the relatively low regard that science and scientists are held in by the general public,” and continually demonstrate how science can address such issues as climate change, food and water security, emerging infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance, and more. “That's really my biggest concern and that's where an organization like AAAS, that cuts across many disciplines, must play an essential role,” she said.


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Early career research scientists who worked with Fraser praise her mentoring skills, encouragement, and support.

PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND

Fraser's dedication to the joy of scientific discovery has dominated her work even before she earned her Ph.D. in pharmacology in 1981 at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It also has dominated a scientific career that has combined biology and genomics and helped decipher the genetic instructions of bacteria, plants, and parasites.

Following her Ph.D. work at SUNY Buffalo, Fraser learned the tools of molecular biology in the National Institutes of Health Intramural Program. The program, she said, provided an open environment that encouraged “fearless” scientific pursuits and offered “outstanding training.” Her research at NIH was devoted to investigating G protein–coupled receptors, which facilitate cell-to-cell communication and are important pharmaceutical targets.

Eight years later, she helped to establish and eventually became president of The Institute for Genomic Research, TIGR, a renowned private research organization founded by Fraser's first husband, J. Craig Venter, a biochemist and geneticist.


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Fraser enjoys ballroom dancing competitions as much as science.

PHOTO: GIACOMELLO GROUP (ITALY)

In 1995, Fraser was part of a TIGR research group that was the first to map the genetic code of Haemophilus influenzae, a bacterium responsible for respiratory infections and meningitis in babies and young children. The findings were published in the 28 July 1995 issue of Science and are often cited as “the first representation of the complete genetic code of a free-living organism,” a discovery that helped pioneer the field of microbial genomics.

“We had no guarantee that this was going to work at all, but it did,” said Fraser in an interview. “That was really a turning point, when the potential of microbial genomics was revealed with the publication of that landmark paper on the cover of Science. Once this first proof of concept was accomplished, all the major U.S. funding agencies jumped on the microbial genomics bandwagon.”

Fraser and her TIGR colleagues look back at this period with fond nostalgia, as pioneers in a new field of scientific investigation that would produce what she estimates as “probably close to a hundred thousand bacterial genome sequences in public databases today.”

Using all the same tools that were being leveraged to generate bacteria, plant, and parasite sequences, Fraser would be part of a team of investigators who would sequence the genome of Shadow, the oldest of one of her three standard poodles. “He was a wonderful dog,” she said, noting that she remains the owner of another trio of standard poodles.

Scientific advances by TIGR led Rita Colwell, then the director of the National Science Foundation, to seek out Fraser and her research team for help with a national security project to sequence anthrax bacterium spores collected from anonymous letters that had been sent to members of Congress and the offices of media companies a week after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Fraser's research “was very, very productive and very important for national security,” said Colwell, adding that she expected nothing less, having worked successfully with Fraser on earlier projects such as sequencing two cholera chromosomes, research that would advance understanding of the deadly organism.

Fraser also has served on editorial boards of scientific journals and as a member of scientific, private, and public advisory boards, including the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, for which her policy-specific knowledge was sought to inform national security concerns.

Among the numerous, prestigious awards Fraser has received was election as a AAAS Fellow in 2004. A year later, she was recognized as the world's most highly cited microbiological researcher over the previous decade, and she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2011.

TIGR research scientists who worked with Fraser praise the support and freedom she provided them and underscore how her approach helped launch their early research careers.

Elodie Ghedin, now a professor of biology and epidemiology at New York University and a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, said that Fraser encouraged exploration, free thinking, and teamwork, inspiration that prompted Ghedin to examine unexplored topics during her time at TIGR. Fraser's support contributed to the work that earned Ghedin the MacArthur Fellowship, she said.

“What was incredible with Claire was if you were hungry and enthusiastic and had ideas for things, she would completely facilitate things for you,” said Ghedin, describing how Fraser found research funding for a novel investigation Ghedin wanted to pursue. “It was an environment that really led to people carving out their own path. Claire is really a leader…she's hands-off, but at the same time, there when you needed her.”

Fraser approaches her personal interests with a vigor equal to the dedication she applies to her scientific work. She spends much of her free time on Nantucket in Massachusetts near where she grew up in the Boston suburb of Saugus, the daughter of “incredibly supportive” parents—her mother an elementary school teacher and father the principal of her local high school.

Over the past 5 years, her embrace of competitive ballroom dancing reveals the depth of her determination even outside science. Fraser trains up to four times a week getting ready for competitions, and she participates in local and international events a few times each year, as her work schedule permits.

She has two closets filled with costumes and drawers stuffed with theatrical makeup and false eyelashes. Her husband, author Jack Kammer, supports her and accompanies her to competitions.

Like science, ballroom dancing is an obsession. It is an activity that fills her with joy. And like science, she knows that what you get out of dancing is only as good as what you put in.

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