Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Boston University biomedical engineer James J. Collins has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), one of the highest honors in science and technology, in recognition of his distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.
Collins, who is one of the founders of the field of synthetic biology, joins BU’s seven other NAS members, a group that includes President Robert A. Brown, Nobel Prize–winning theoretical physicist Sheldon Glashow, BU’s Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Mathematics and Science, and Nancy Kopell, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor. The NAS, a private, nonprofit society of distinguished scholars, is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on science and technology. Collins is one of 84 new members and 21 foreign associates.
“I was thrilled and stunned by the news of my election,” says Collins. “It has been quite a day—I have received congratulatory messages from colleagues all around the country. I think the honor is a marvelous tribute to the creative work in synthetic biology, systems biology, and biological physics done by all of the fantastic young people who have been part of our lab.”
Collins is a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering, as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and director of the Center of Synthetic Biology (CoSBi). He is a Rhodes scholar, a MacArthur “genius” award winner, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
“We are thrilled to learn of Jim’s election to the National Academy of Sciences,” says Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer. “This is one of the most significant honors for a scientist, and Jim is well deserving of this recognition. Jim’s pathbreaking research in synthetic and systems biology, with a particular focus on antibiotics, has set him apart as one of the world’s top researchers—and we are extraordinarily proud to have him as a member of the BU faculty.”
“Jim is one of the most remarkable and intellectually creative and fearless biomedical engineering scientists I have ever met,” says Kenneth R. Lutchen, dean of ENG. “His genius goes beyond identifying important challenges in biology and health care, and being able to design and implement solutions to solve these challenges all the way to applications that impact society. Moreover, Jim is the icon for excellence for all of what academia stands for.”
Fittingly for Collins, who is well known not only for his pioneering research, but for his passion for teaching and mentoring, the news about his latest honor came the same day as the announcement that he had been voted Professor of the Year by ENG students. He has won just about every BU teaching award, including the top one, the Metcalf Cup and Prize.
Ahmad (Mo) Khalil, an ENG assistant professor of biomedical engineering and CoSBi associate director, says he came to BU from MIT as a postdoc so he could work with Collins. “Jim is truly an inspiration to the whole Boston University community,” Khalil says. “He has made a tremendous impact on science through his pioneering research. Equally important is Jim’s impact on education at BU and beyond. Over the years, he has attracted, inspired, and trained countless students and mentees, including myself, who feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with him.”
Khalil and Collins were speaking with some research collaborators by phone Tuesday when Khalil noticed Collins scrolling through a stream of emails. “I said, ‘Jim, what’s going on?’” Khalil recalls. “He said, ‘I just found out I was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.’”
Trying not to interrupt their phone meeting, Khalil says, they were mouthing the words. “I was so excited I stood up and shook his hand and congratulated him. To be elected to NAS, NAE, and IOM—that’s the trifecta. It’s reserved for only a very few in the country.”