Academics & Faculty

UCLA biochemist Sabeeha Merchant elected to National Academy of Sciences

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Sabeeha Merchant, a UCLA professor of biochemistry whose research is providing insights into the complex machinery of the cell, was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in recognition of her "distinguished and continuing achievements in original research," the academy announced May 1.
 
Membership in the academy is one of the highest honors given to a scientist in the United States. Among its most renowned members have been Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright and Alexander Graham Bell.
 
"The credit belongs to all the people I've had the good fortune to work with — students and postdoctoral researchers, of course, but also collaborators and colleagues — all of whom have generously shared their creativity and work with me," said Merchant, who is respected among her colleagues for her modesty and generosity. "UCLA is a great place for research, for being able to start new projects, and the department and dean have been wonderfully supportive, especially recently, as my research has been going in new directions.
 
"My immediate thought," she said, "was that I miss my father, who would have been the first person I would have called. He would have been happy and proud."
 
Merchant was the lead author on a three-year, 115-scientist research project published in the Oct. 12, 2007, issue of the journal Science reporting a "gold mine" of data on a tiny green alga called Chlamydomonas, with implications for human diseases. The single-celled Chlamydomonas, a slimy organism that grows in soil and ponds, has approximately 15,000 genes, and scientists now know more than 95 percent of the sequence of its genome. Several years ago, they knew less than 2 percent.
 
"It's like having a dictionary of genes," Merchant, who has studied the green alga for 20 years, said at the time. "We know the words, and now we want to learn to talk. Without the dictionary, you would be stuck and couldn't learn how to speak or write. We went from having a 200-word vocabulary to a 14,250-word vocabulary. Each of us is trying to learn how to put the words and sentences together in our own research programs.
 
"Having the genome sequence available fast-forwards our research by 10 or 20 years and allows us to make progress by leaps and bounds. The genome sequence opens the door for us to access all the genes and target our research on subsets of genes. What was just a dream 10 years ago, we have now accomplished."
 
The alga turns out to be remarkably complex; its single cell does much of the biochemistry that more complex organisms do, Merchant said.
 
The Chlamydomonas genome project opened up new directions in Merchant's research program, and she is currently "using high-throughput genetics, transcriptomics and proteomics to understand fundamental biochemical mechanisms."
 
Mechanisms that apply to algae also apply to many other forms of life and other kinds of cells, including those of plants and mammals.
 
"We study algae to understand how cells work," Merchant said. "It's easier to conduct research with a microorganism."
 
"Sabeeha has blazed new pathways that have allowed us to better understand how organisms allocate, use and re-use metal ions to create useful energy for biosynthesis," said her colleague, Steven Clarke, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
 
"This honor brings much-deserved recognition to Sabeeha's groundbreaking accomplishments in metal homeostasis in plants, photosynthesis and algal genomics," said Albert Courey, professor and chair of the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "In addition to being a great scientist in her own right, Sabeeha helps everyone around her to do better science, as the many amongst us who have had the opportunity to collaborate with her will attest. She has also been a tireless and selfless advocate for biochemistry and molecular biology at UCLA. Her efforts have been key in the recruitment of many of our best young faculty."
 
Merchant was honored with a major award from the National Academy of Sciences in 2006, the Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal, awarded only once every three years, for her exceptional scientific research.
 
Merchant, who joined UCLA's faculty in 1987, has been awarded research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Air Force Office of Science Research.
 
The election of Merchant, who this year is among 84 new members of the academy from the U.S. and 21 foreign associates from 15 countries, brings the number of current UCLA academy members to 41. There are more than 2,100 current academy members.
 
The National Academy of Sciences was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation signed by Abraham Lincoln that calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology. The academy is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. 
 
For more on Merchant and her research, visit www.chem.ucla.edu/dept/Faculty/merchant/index.html.
 
UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer 337 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Six alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.
 
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