MU professor accepted into National Academy of Sciences

Monday, May 9, 2011 | 6:15 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — One of his favorite things about working in the science and research field is the "ah-ha moment."

"We call it the ah-ha moment, where it’s like 'oh yeah, ah-ha that’s how it works,'” said James Birchler, a curators professor of biological sciences for MU. It excites him to see his students have these same "ah-ha moments."

His dedication to these "ah-ha moments" helped pave the way for Birchler's acceptance into the National Academy of Sciences on May 3.

The National Academy of Sciences has about 2,200 members and 400 foreign associates, according to the academy's website. It serves as an advisory function for different departments in the U.S. government. Birchler said how involved he becomes is his decision.

Birchler wasn't completely surprised by the announcement that he was one of the 72 new members accepted this year. The academy also accepted 18 foreign associates from 15 countries.

“As I’ve often joked about other things, there are no secrets in academia. I had heard a rumor the previous year that something was in the works,” Birchler said.

Birchler's acceptance into the academy puts him in company with some historically notable scientists including Thomas Edison, Orville Wright and Albert Einstein. While he is humbled by his acceptance, Birchler said he feels it was a little over the top to lump him together with these scientists.

A colleague, who was anonymous throughout the process and has remained so, nominated him. A portion of the nomination included a description of the candidate's work in about 50 words, Birchler said.

Birchler studied at Eastern Illinois University as an undergraduate student and was encouraged by his teachers to pursue a graduate degree. He later went on to teach at Harvard and Berkeley. In addition to lecturing around the U.S., he has lectured in many countries including Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the Netherlands.

Birchler, who studies fruit flies and maize at MU, came to the university when his partner also got a teaching job. Her lab is down the hall from his on the third floor of Tucker Hall.

On one of projects, he is working to create artificial chromosomes in maize. The ideal outcome would produce plants that could sustain longer periods of drought, nitrogen utilization and nutritional properties, he said.

“There’s still a long way to go to that point from where we are now, but now we can see the path to that kind of application in the future perhaps,” Birchler said.

Birchler conveyed his love for science and research through a "dramatic story" about one of his teachers from his undergraduate days. 

“She had this little coal ball and said ‘Jim, come here,’ so I just go a few steps into her office and she takes a hammer and she slams down on this coal ball and it plops open,” Birchler said. “She picks it up and she says ‘Here’s what keeps me going. I am the first person who lays eyes on this fossil.’”

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