Yale on Tuesday honored four alumni for their achievements in academia, granting each the Wilbur Cross Medal, the highest alumni award bestowed by the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Richard Powell GRD ’88, Michael Levine GRD ’81, William Willis a’54 GRD ’58 and Laura Kiessling GRD ’89 all accepted the award at a ceremony Tuesday. Each recipient gave a separate speech that evening.

Richard Powell GRD ’88, leading scholar of the history of African-American art, published a book in 2008 entitled “Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture,” which focused on African-American portraiture and its role in shaping the African-American self-image.

A student at two different historically black colleges before attending Yale for graduate school, Powell described the two experiences as “night and day,” but both valuable for making connections in his field.

Powell is now the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, where he has been a faculty member since 1989. His speech held the same title as his book, “Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture.”

Laura Kiessling GRD ’89, who was officially awarded the medal in 2008, is a biologist and researcher who designs synthetic molecules that mimic natural molecules, in order to understand how bodily processes function at the molecular level. She said that she values the award because it represents the amount of support Yale is willing to give its graduates. Her experiences at Yale directly influenced her work, she said.

“This interest was a result of an argument I had with one of my labmates,” she said.

Kiessling is currently the Hilldale Professor of Chemistry and the Laurens Anderson Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, where she has been a faculty member since 1991. Her speech was titled “The Chemistry of Carbohydrate Biosynthesis in Mycobacteria.”

Physicist William Willis ’54 GRD ’58 developed calorimetry and transition radiation, which are some of the basic tools of elementary particle research. He has been a scientific administrator at national and international laboratories, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Willis has been on many international scientific advisory panels and now chairs the Research and Development Board for the International Linear Collider, which is working to develop an electron-positron collider. He was Yale faculty member from 1965 to 1973.

His speech was titled “Can We Make Large Facilities with Global Collaborations?”

Michael Levine GRD ’81, a geneticist and researcher, studies gene networks that control animal development and disease. He contributed to the discovery of “homeobox” genes in fruit flies, which are imperative in the study of animal development.

He now works with sea squirts, because their DNA more closely resembles human DNA. Levine currently heads the Division of Genetics, Genomics and Development and is the co-director for the Center for Integrative Genomics at University of California-Berkeley, where he has been a faculty member since 1996. His speech was titled “Transcriptional Precision in the Drosophila Embryo.”