January 28, 2013 - By Krista Conger
Lucy Shapiro has a date at the White House this week. It's not clear whether her visit will include a private conversation with President Obama, but, if so, it's likely our commander in chief will get an earful about the threat of emerging infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance and climate change.
Strange topics for a developmental biologist? Not for Shapiro, whom colleagues know as a knowledgeable, confident and — yes — even opinionated researcher who balances impeccable science with a powerful sense of social responsibility and national service.
It all started on Dec. 21.
"I received a phone call telling me to wait at my desk," said Shapiro, "because a call was going to come in from the White House." Within minutes, John Holdren, PhD, the president's chief science advisor, was informing her that she was one of 12 recipients of the 2012 National Medal of Science — an award sometimes referred to as "America's Nobel Prize."
"The National Medal of Science recognizes individuals with an outstanding breadth of knowledge in their field," said Lloyd Minor, MD, the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Dean of the School of Medicine. "Dr. Shapiro's contributions to the field of systems developmental biology have revolutionized our understanding of bacterial genetic networks and led to the development of desperately needed novel drugs to counter the spread of antibiotic resistance and emerging infectious diseases. She is deeply deserving of this honor."
On Jan. 30, Shapiro and her husband and colleague, physicist Harley McAdams, PhD, and their grown children will travel to Washington, DC, to accept the award during a three-day whirlwind of events and celebrations. And, although it's been a month since the announcement, the excitement hasn't worn off for her.
"I'm thrilled," said Shapiro, PhD, the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Professor at the medical school and director of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine. "I've been getting several e-mails from Washington every day. It's apparently a very big deal."
Big deal or not, it seems unlikely that Shapiro is truly rattled.
"Lucy is a force of nature," said Will Talbot, PhD, chair of the Department of Developmental Biology. "There's just really no other way to say it. Her energy is incomparable, and she pours her heart into everything she does. She founded our department, and all the research our faculty is doing now started at some level with Lucy's efforts and insight years ago."
If that's the case, then Talbot and his colleagues have cause to be thankful that, decades ago, the young alum of Brooklyn College in New York decided to abandon fine arts (not to mention her undergraduate thesis on Dante) in favor of a career in science, which she realized could be both fun and endlessly challenging.
Science may have been her second choice, but Shapiro, who joined the Stanford faculty in 1989 after serving as chair of the Microbiology and Immunology Department at Columbia University, has certainly made a rousing success of it: In the past few years, she's garnered an impressive list of national and international awards for her work on understanding how the genetic circuitry of the bacterial cell functions in time and space to orchestrate a cell division that yields two unique cells — the fundamental basis of stem cell function and the generation of diversity in the living world. Her insights helped launch the field of systems biology and have led to the development of novel antibacterial and antifungal drugs.
Along the way, Shapiro has become an outspoken resource for politicians and policymakers struggling with the growing threat of emerging infectious diseases and the reality of bioterrorism in an age when scientific information — and people — flow much more quickly and freely across international borders than ever before. She served in an advisory role in the Clinton administration and second Bush administration, and is now a member of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
"As my research progressed, I felt that I was in a position where I could, in fact, influence policy," said Shapiro. "I had done the basic science that would allow me to understand how bacteria work, and I felt the responsibility to educate and inform the public about what I began to perceive as a growing threat. Our legislators and our government leaders have to know what's really going on. So I've kind of been thrust into a position as a spokesperson for these issues."
Shapiro's research validated the use of one-celled bacteria called Caulobacter to study developmental biology, formerly thought to be the exclusive purview of multi-celled organisms. It also helped scientists understand in minute detail the inner workings of many types of bacterial and fungal cells and to pinpoint weak links that can be targeted by new drugs. This is a critical step forward in a time when emerging infectious diseases and climate change have created what Shapiro calls a "perfect storm."
"We live in a global village," said Shapiro. "Climate change will affect enormously where all these pathogens live. So we're seeing emerging new pathogens, as well as the rise of known pathogens in new areas where people have no natural immunity to them. That's one part of the threat. Additionally, there are many more people in the world with compromised immune systems due to modern medical interventions like organ transplants and chemotherapy. Finally, although these pathogens are rapidly developing resistance to currently available antibiotics, big pharma has not taken on the task of aggressively designing novel anti-infectives."
Never one to hesitate, Shapiro has collaborated with McAdams and Stephen Benkovic, PhD, a chemist at Pennsylvania State University, to launch a biotechnology company in Palo Alto called Anacor Pharmaceuticals. The company focuses on designing and developing unique antibiotics and antifungals based on what Shapiro and McAdams, who is also a professor of developmental biology, have learned in their studies of the Caulobacter cell cycle control circuitry. They are expecting the results of a phase-3 clinical trial of a new, topical antifungal medication within a few months.
"Our labs are totally integrated," said Shapiro of her collaboration with McAdams. "His students are physicists and engineers, and mine are developmental biologists and microbial geneticists. They work side by side."
In 2009, Shapiro and McAdams were awarded the John Scott Legacy Medal and Premium from the city of Philadelphia — the first married couple to share the honor — in recognition of their pioneering work in the application of electrical circuit analysis to the emerging understanding of genetic networks.
"Stanford is unique in the way it enables interdisciplinary teams to explore the physics and chemistry of the living world," said Shapiro. "This type of collaboration has revolutionized how we understand bacteria, the most abundant organism on our planet."
Shapiro is clearly excited about the National Medal and the events to come this week. But it's equally obvious that awards and honors play second fiddle to her real love: research.
"Seventy-five percent of my waking hours are spent in my lab watching over my experiments and training my post-docs and students," said Shapiro. "I knew I was being considered for the award, but that was months ago. I had more or less forgotten about it."
The National Medal of Science was established in 1959 and is administered by the National Science Foundation. The annual award is meant to honor extraordinary knowledge in and outstanding contributions to science and engineering. There are 12 total recipients this year. In addition to Shapiro, Sidney Drell, PhD, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and emeritus professor of theoretical physics and former deputy director of Stanford's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, will also receive the award this week.
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