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NSF loses Kamal Shukla

January 31, 2016

Most of us know that books get published with the guidance of editors such as David Hartwell. Relatively few are aware of how progress in science is shaped by program directors at the National Science Foundation such as Kamal Shukla, who passed away last week. While Hartwell was known for promoting “hard science” in science fiction, Shukla promoted the “hard” physical and chemical foundations of biology.

An example of the research Shukla approved for funding was how the protein ubiquitin regulates gene expression (how a gene makes its product). Ubiquitin is one of many chemical tags that get attached to proteins that bind DNA. Here, Cynthia Wolberger at Johns Hopkins explains.

By understanding how ubiquitin works, we learn clues to all kinds of disease processes such as cancer. Today, Wolberger’s work is a big deal for medical research; but the start for testing her ideas came from NSF, back when NIH though it too risky.

Another researcher whose pioneering work found NSF support under Shukla was Mary Jo Ondrechen at Northwestern. Ondrechen tackles the big problems of genomics and proteomics–When you have 13,000 new protein structures determined by biophysics, how do you make sense of what they do? Massive computational programs address such questions, with results that point in countless unexpected directions. We need far-sighted shepherds at NSF to make sure such work continues.





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