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High Honors for U Faculty Members

May 1, 2007 – University of Utah mathematician Christopher Hacon has received one of his field’s top honors, while biologist Baldomero “Toto” Olivera and biochemist Brenda Bass were elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Hacon won his award for his work on a key problem in algebraic geometry. Olivera’s honor stems from his search for new medicines in toxins from venomous, sea-dwelling cone snails. Bass was honored for her research into double-stranded RNA, which can be edited so that it converts information carried by a single gene into multiple proteins to carry out various jobs in a living organism.

A Big Award in Mathematics

Hacon was among five mathematicians honored with Clay Research Awards, given by the Clay Mathematics Institute for “major breakthroughs in mathematics research.” Hacon shared his award with James McKernan, a former University of Utah postdoctoral researcher who now works at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Aaron Bertram, the University of Utah’s mathematics chairman, said: “This is a very big award, probably just one rung under the Fields Medal – the math Nobel Prize.”

The institute cited Hacon and McKernan “for their work in advancing our understanding of the birational geometry of algebraic varieties in dimension greater than three, in particular, for their inductive proof of the existence of flips.”

Bertram translated that as follows: “Hyperbolas, ellipses and parabolas are shapes that are described by quadratic polynomials [a type of equation] with two variables. One of the central problems in algebraic geometry is how to classify the shapes that are described by polynomials of arbitrary degrees with arbitrary numbers of variables.”

Because of the Hacon-McKernan research, “we now know that special surgeries – or ‘flips’ as they are known in the algebraic geometry community – can be performed on these multidimensional shapes to remove irregularities,” he added. “This key step in the classification problem has been immediately recognized for its importance.”

A native of Manchester, England, Hacon held a postdoctoral position at the University of Utah and taught math during 1998-2000, spent two years at the University of California, Riverside, and then joined the University of Utah faculty in 2002.

Hacon and other awardees receive a year of financial support for their research and a bronze sculpture by artist Helaman Ferguson, a Salt Lake City native known for converting mathematical concepts into sculpture. They will receive their awards May 14 during the Clay Research Conference at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

In the Company of Al Gore, Robert Redford and Sandra Day O’Connor

Olivera and Bass were among 203 new fellows and 24 foreign honorary members elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock and other early American scholar-patriots.

Along with Olivera and Bass, other newly elected fellows include former Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., former Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, filmmaker Spike Lee, actor-director-producer Robert Redford and Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt.

“It gives me great pleasure to welcome these outstanding leaders in their fields to the academy,” said the group’s president, Emilio Bizzi. “Fellows are selected through a highly competitive process that recognizes individuals who have made pre-eminent contributions to their disciplines and to society at large.”

Bass, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a distinguished professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center, studies the functions of double-stranded RNA, including RNA interference, a process that occurs naturally in cells but also is manipulated by scientists to disable genes and thus learn what the genes do normally.

Genetic information is stored as genes in DNA, but RNA relays the information to the rest of a living cell. Like DNA, RNA sometimes exists as a double-helix. Among other topics, Bass studies proteins that bind to double-stranded RNA, including an enzyme that “edits” RNA so the information it is relaying from a single gene can be converted into a variety of proteins to carry out various functions in living organisms, particularly in the nervous system.

Olivera, a distinguished professor of biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor, grew up in the Philippines, where cone snails were sold in seafood markets and where fishermen occasionally were stung by the snails and killed by their venom. Cone snails harpoon fish with a hypodermic needle-like tooth, injecting venom that is toxic to the nervous system, paralyzing fish so they can be reeled in and eaten.

Olivera and members of his lab have identified a potent painkiller and several promising drug candidates in the snails’ nerve poisons.

Election to the academy is the latest in a series of honors for Olivera, who was elected in 2006 to the Institute of Medicine and this year was named the Harvard Foundation’s Scientist of the Year.

An independent policy research center, the American Academy of Arts and Science undertakes studies of complex and emerging problems, focusing currently on science and global security; social policy; the humanities and culture, and education.

The academy will welcome this year’s new fellows and members on Oct. 6, at the academy’s headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.