Hanson, Grafstein elected to arts and sciences academy

Maureen Hanson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Bernice Grafstein, the Vincent and Brooke Astor Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine, have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced April 22.

They are among 252 newly elected members  – 55% of whom are women – honored for individual achievements in academia, the arts, business, government and public affairs.

“We are honoring the excellence of these individuals, celebrating what they have achieved so far and imagining what they will continue to accomplish,” said David Oxtoby, president of the academy. “The past year has been replete with evidence of how things can get worse; this is an opportunity to illuminate the importance of art, ideas, knowledge and leadership that can make a better world.”

Newly elected academy members include media mogul and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey, musician Robbie Robertson (The Band), New York Times journalist Kara Swisher, and neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

“I’m quite honored to be invited to join this distinguished group,” Hanson said, “which includes not only scientists, but also many writers, composers, architects and other artists whose work I enjoy and achievements I admire.”

Hanson, director of the Center for Enervating Neuroimmune Disease, has two different research programs: plant biology, focusing on the genome-containing organelles of plants, chloroplasts and mitochondria; and the pathophysiology of human myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

Recent plant biology research includes published work on a key plant enzyme, Rubisco, responsible for converting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the building blocks of plants. 

Regarding ME/CFS, one current project is examining metabolism of immune cells and metabolites in plasma; another aims to identify differences in gene expression and cargo of extracellular vesicles at baseline and following exercise, in both healthy individuals and those diagnosed with ME/CFS.

Hanson is a member of the graduate fields of genetics, genomics and development; plant biology; and biochemistry, molecular and cell biology.

She received her doctorate in cell and developmental biology in 1976 from Harvard, then held a National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard. She joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1979, before joining the Cornell faculty as an associate professor in 1985. She was promoted to full professor in 1991.

Hanson is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Society of Plant Biologists.

Grafstein, a renowned neuroscientist, has made pioneering discoveries about nerve cell damage and regeneration during a career that has spanned more than five decades.

“I’m extremely thrilled,” said Grafstein, who is also a professor of physiology and biophysics. “And I love the fact that this has come at a mature point in my career. I can savor it all the more now.”

Grafstein’s earliest work as a graduate student, on brain phenomena related to migraine aura and stroke, has survived as a classical reference for more than 50 years. Many of her subsequent studies were done on goldfish optic nerves, which show robust regeneration after injury and thus provide important insights into the potential for regeneration in the human nervous system.

Her work with neurosurgeon Dr. Irvine McQuarrie, M.D. ’65, Ph.D. ’77, a former assistant professor of physiology and surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine, showed that nerve regrowth after an injury was regulated by changes further back in the nerve cell than the site of injury. This finding is important for developing methods to improve recovery from injuries of human nerves and brain pathways.

Her research has also illuminated the process of axonal transport, which conveys building materials within nerve cells and is critical to their development and function.

“Essentially what I discovered was that things were moving much faster than had been imagined until then,” she said. 

Her technique for showing that some material jumped from one nerve cell to the next at the synaptic connections was used in the 1981 Nobel Prize-winning work of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel on the development of the visual system.

Grafstein received a bachelor’s degree in physiology from the University of Toronto and a Ph.D. in neurophysiology from McGill University. She went on to postgraduate work in the Department of Anatomy at University College London and a faculty position at McGill before moving to Rockefeller University. In 1969 she joined the Department of Physiology at Weill Cornell Medicine.

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Gillian Smith