UO biologist named to national academy

First published in Around the O on April 24th, 2020.

UO biologist Karen Guillemin, an internationally renowned pioneer who developed a zebrafish model to examine how animals coexist with their microbial residents and the role bacteria play in development and disease, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Guillemin was elected along with 275 other artists, scholars, scientists and leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. She joins the ranks of 250 Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winners and a range of others recognized for their excellence and expertise.

Those include actor Tom Hanks, former President Barack Obama, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and physicist David J. Pine of New York University. The list also includes her father, Victor William Guillemin, who was elected in 1983 in the area of mathematics and physical sciences, and her great-uncle Ernst Guillemin, who was a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is a wonderful honor,” said Guillemin, Philip H. Knight Chair and professor of biology. “It’s also very meaningful one to me because I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from the academy, and sometimes attended events there with my father, who was elected as a fellow when I was in high school.”

Guillemin is a professor in the UO’s Department of Biology and the Institute of Molecular Biology. She established the interdisciplinary Microbial Ecology and Theory of Animals, an National Institutes of Health-funded Center of Excellence in Systems Biology, to better understand the bacteria and other microorganisms that reside in the animal gut and influence many biological functions.

She has helped further the evolution of zebrafish research, which the UO pioneered as a model organism to ultimately better understand human biology and disease, by developing a special kind of sterile zebrafish that allows scientists to better determine the role those microbes play as animals grow. Guillemin, who was elected in the area of biological sciences, has published more than 85 scientific papers and made numerous groundbreaking discoveries in her field, including a novel bacterial protein called BefA , which she recently patented and which shows promise to someday become a component of a new treatment for Type-1 diabetes.

"Karen Guillemin is renowned for developing zebrafish as a model organism to study the effects of microbes on animal development and health,” said UO President Michael H. Schill.  “In addition to leading the national agenda for research in this area, she leads teams of brilliant young scientists, including undergraduates, in the pursuit of potential therapeutics and cures for diseases caused by excessive inflammation. She represents everything that is innovative, collaborative and exceptional about the University of Oregon's scientific research enterprise, and we are delighted to see her receive this recognition so early in her career."

The academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock and others to honor exceptionally accomplished individuals engaged in advancing the public good. This year’s list of new members includes singer, songwriter and activist Joan Baez, immunologist Yasmine Belkaidis, lawyer and former Attorney General Eric Holder and independent filmmaker Richard Linklater.

UO biologist Judith Eisen, a fellow zebrafish researcher who was inducted into the academy in 2018 for her pioneering work developing zebrafish as a model to study the nervous system, credited Guillemin for her discovery of the BefA bacterial protein, among many other accomplishments. She also pointed to the development of new tools from the Guillemin lab that have become an important community resource for the genetic manipulation of newly discovered host-associated bacterial species.

 “Karen is a fantastic colleague who is internationally recognized for pioneering zebrafish as a model to understand how host-associated microbes influence vertebrate development,” Eisen said.

Guillemin, who was profiled in a recent Oregon Quarterly story, earned an undergraduate degree in biology from Harvard University and trained at Stanford University with renowned microbiologist Stanley Falkow before arriving at the UO’s Institute of Molecular Biology as a junior professor in 2001. She published a breakthrough 2006 publication describing how development in germ-free zebrafish is stunted in specific ways, and her work has expanded from there to new lines of research.

Guillemin’s lab draws on the expertise of UO colleagues in fields ranging from physics to microbial ecology, and she has mentored numerous graduate students.

Guillemin is one of 14 current or retired UO faculty members who have been honored as fellows of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Five of them, along with two former UO scientists, are biologists who have either been colleagues or collaborators with Eisen.

In all, 21 UO faculty members, including five who are deceased and three who have since left the UO, have been selected by the academy, beginning with Peter H. von Hippel in 1979. They’ve come from the fields of anthropology, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, law, physics and psychology.

Among the academy’s long list of famous members have been Benjamin Franklin, elected 1781; Alexander Hamilton, 1791; Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1864; Charles Darwin, 1874; Albert Einstein, 1924; Robert Frost, 1931; Margaret Mead, 1948; Milton Friedman, 1959; and Martin Luther King Jr., 1966.

“The members of the class of 2020 have excelled in laboratories and lecture halls, they have amazed on concert stages and in operating rooms, and they have led in board rooms and courtrooms,” said academy President David W. Oxtoby. “With today’s election announcement, these new members are united by a place in history and by an opportunity to shape the future through the academy’s work to advance the public good.”

No announcement has been made about a formal welcoming event, but the academy typically honors members with an induction ceremony in the fall. Guillemin said she is looking forward to the eventual lifting of travel restrictions due to the coronavirus epidemic.

“I hope I’ll be able to travel back home to Cambridge and celebrate with my parents when the pandemic crisis is over,” she said.

By Lewis Taylor, University Communications