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  • Mark Davis (left) and David Tirrell (right)
10/26/2011 15:00:00

Caltech Professors Mark E. Davis and David A. Tirrell Elected to the Institute of Medicine

Caltech Now Has Three of the 13 Living Members of All Three Branches of the National Academies

PASADENA, Calif.—Mark E. Davis and David A. Tirrell of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have been elected to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an honor that is considered among the highest in the fields of health and medicine. Both Davis and Tirrell are already members of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, making them two of only 13 living individuals who have been elected to all three branches of the National Academies.

"Both Mark and Dave have made important interdisciplinary contributions that span the fields of chemical and biomolecular engineering," says Jacqueline Barton, the Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech. "It is fitting that they be honored by all three academies."

Although election to all three branches of the academies is a rare distinction, Davis and Tirrell are not the first from Caltech to earn the honor—the Institute now has three faculty members and two alumni on the list of 13. Frances Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry joined the ranks in 2008, and alumni Leroy Hood and Yuan-Cheng Fung are also on the list.

Mark Davis, the Warren and Katharine Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering, is a member of the experimental therapeutics program at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center. His research focuses on the design and synthesis of nanoscale materials that are designed to be combined with therapeutic molecules. These "nanomedicines" have the potential to change the way cancer is treated—by providing more targeted therapies with fewer side effects—and are currently being tested in clinical trials.

"I am honored to receive this recognition," Davis says, "as it gives us validation that the medical community appreciates our work on creating new cancer therapeutics."

Davis earned his BS, MS, and PhD at the University of Kentucky in 1977, 1978, and 1981, respectively. He joined the Caltech faculty as a professor in 1991, was named Schlinger Professor in 1993, and served as executive officer for chemical engineering from 1999 to 2004.

David Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor and professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, is known for work that bridges chemistry, biology, and materials science. Tirrell has developed a method for getting bacterial cells to "read" artificial genes and then produce protein-like structures with unusual or desired properties. The new materials could be useful in biomedical applications.

"It's always nice when a group of colleagues indicates that they think the research going on in your laboratory is worthwhile," Tirrell says. "My students and postdocs work on fundamental problems in protein chemistry, usually without specific clinical objectives. But we hope that what we do might someday find its way into medical practice and into other areas of science and technology."

Tirrell received his BS from MIT in 1974 and his PhD from the University of Massachusetts in 1978. He joined Caltech's faculty in 1998 and served as chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering from 1999 until 2009.

The IOM was established in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences and is recognized as "a national resource for independent, scientifically informed analysis and recommendations on human health issues."

The election of Davis and Tirrell brings Caltech's total representation in the IOM to six faculty members and two trustees. This year, 65 new members and five foreign associates were elected to the IOM, bringing the total active membership to 1,688 members and the total number of foreign associates to 102.

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier