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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 21, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 23
Scientists Receive Presidential Medals

Riccardo Giacconi, University Professor in the Krieger School's Department of Physics and Astronomy

Riccardo Giacconi and Sol Snyder given U.S.'s top scientific recognition

By Lisa De Nike
and Joanna Downer

Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Riccardo Giacconi and neuroscientist Solomon H. Snyder are two of eight recipients of the 2003 National Medal of Science, the United States' top scientific recognition, the White House announced last week.

The two will be the seventh and eighth Johns Hopkins faculty members to be awarded this honor. Giacconi and Snyder will receive the medals in a White House ceremony on Monday, March 14.

"Sol's and Riccardo's careers — as scientists and as leaders of scientists — have been nothing short of extraordinary," said William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins. "Though one seeks to solve the mysteries of the mind and brain and the other explores the universe, they are really very much alike: They are intensely curious. They are immensely creative. They are relentless in their pursuit of knowledge and truth. We are proud to be their colleagues."

Sol Snyder, University Distinguished Service Professor of Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Psychiatry in the SOM

Sol Snyder's research accomplishments range from the discovery of opiate receptors in the brain — work for which he shared the prestigious Albert Lasker Award in 1978 — to proof that gases can serve as neural messengers.

Many advances in molecular neuroscience have stemmed from Snyder's identification of receptors for neurotransmitters and drugs, which led to clarification of how psychotropic agents act in the brain. He pioneered the labeling of receptors by a process called reversible ligand binding, which led to his and colleagues' discovery of the opiate receptor, and he extended the technique to identify numerous other neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. In characterizing each new group of receptors, he also clarified the actions of major neuroactive drugs.

Snyder's techniques and discoveries have helped lead to rational design of new drugs to treat psychiatric and other diseases based on the rapid screening of large numbers of candidate drugs, advances made possible by his receptor binding technology. In addition, Snyder's identification of novel neurotransmitters, such as the gases nitric oxide and carbon monoxide and D-amino acids such as D-serine, has radically reshaped concepts of neurotransmission.

"This honor recognizes Sol as a pioneer in brain sciences research and celebrates his many creative, novel experimental approaches and numerous groundbreaking discoveries," said Chi Dang, vice dean for research at the School of Medicine. "Because of both his research and his training of many of biomedical science's current and future leaders, Sol's impact extends well beyond neuroscience. I am extremely happy for Sol, and I join the Hopkins community in congratulating him and in celebrating this joyous event."

Snyder continues searching for new neurotransmitters and receptors, as well as increasing understanding of those he and his colleagues have discovered throughout the years.

"I am grateful that the work of my students over the past 40 years has received recognition," Snyder said. "I feel honored to be included among other distinguished neuroscientists who have also received the award, especially my friend and colleague Vernon Mountcastle."

Born in 1938 in Washington, D.C., Snyder entered Georgetown in a premedical program in 1955 and was admitted to its medical school in 1958 without a bachelor's degree. He earned an M.D. in 1962 at age 23.

From 1963 to 1965, Snyder was a research associate at the National Institute of Mental Health in the laboratory of Julius Axelrod, a 1970 Nobel laureate for whom he had worked briefly prior to entering medical school. In 1965, Snyder came to Johns Hopkins as a resident in psychiatry and was made an assistant professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics the following year. In 1970, by age 31, he had risen to full professor in both departments.

In 1980, Snyder was appointed the first University Distinguished Service Professor of Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Psychiatry and director of the Department of Neuroscience, positions he still holds. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Philosophical Society. He is the recipient of six honorary doctorates and numerous awards.

Co-recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in physics, Riccardo Giacconi is considered the father of astronomy research that exploits the X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. His research opened a new window on scientific understanding of the universe, from its evolution to its component black holes, neutron stars, galaxy clusters and quasars.

More than 40 years ago, Giacconi led the team that discovered the faint, uniform phenomenon known as the cosmic X-ray background. Since then, his work has helped define that background and determine its origin. A longtime leader in astrophysics, Giacconi has been responsible, in a series of administrative posts, for the construction and operation of some of the world's most important astronomical observatories. One of those posts brought him to Johns Hopkins in 1981.

"The National Medal of Science is our country's highest recognition of scientific achievement. Through his pioneering work in astronomy and his leadership of the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Giacconi has advanced our science, our university, our city and our country," said Jonathan Bagger, chair of the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Krieger School. "I am delighted that his many contributions are being honored by President Bush."

"Riccardo is always a pleasure to work with," said Colin Norman, a professor of physics and astronomy at Hopkins and a collaborator of Giacconi's. "He holds fast to the highest possible levels of scientific and technical truth. He possesses profound physical insight, and his strategic understanding into where [the field of] astronomy and astrophysics is going and the path, in fact, it should be taking is unmatched in the field."

Giacconi was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1931 and earned a doctorate in physics in 1954 from the University of Milan, where he was an assistant professor until he left for the United States in 1956. After two years at the University of Indiana and a year at Princeton, Giacconi joined American Science and Engineering to launch a space science program for the small corporation. In 1973 he joined nearby Harvard University.

From 1981 to 1992, Giacconi was founding director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the science headquarters for the Hubble Space Telescope on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. From 1981 to 1997, he was a professor in Physics and Astronomy at the university. He became a research professor in 1998 and maintained his personal research program here when he became president of Associated Universities Inc., the consortium that co-administers the National Radio Astronomy Observatory with the National Science Foundation. He retired from AUI late last year and was named University Professor at Johns Hopkins in October 2004.

The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 as a presidential award to be given to individuals "deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical or engineering sciences." In 1980 Congress expanded this recognition to include the social and behavioral sciences. The Medal of Science is administered by the National Science Foundation.

Six other Johns Hopkins faculty members have been recipients of the honor. The medal was awarded in 2002 to Victor A. McKusick, University Professor of Medical Genetics at the School of Medicine and the father of genetic medicine; in 1993 to Nobel laureate Daniel Nathans of the School of Medicine; in 1987 to nuclear physicist, geophysicist and theoretical biologist Walter Elsasser of the School of Arts and Sciences; in 1986 to both Donald A. Henderson, dean of the School of Hygiene and Public Health, and School of Medicine neuroscientist Vernon B. Mountcastle; and in 1974 to sanitary engineering pioneer Abel Wolman of the schools of Engineering and Hygiene and Public Health.


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