On Oct. 19, four professors of the Yale School of Medicine — Ronald Duman, Murat Günel, David McCormick and Laura Niklason — joined the ranks of the National Academy of Medicine.
Becoming a member of the NAM, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, is one of the highest honors for a health and medicine expert, said Robert Alpern, dean of the Yale School of Medicine, who is also a member of the NAM. The four join a group currently composed of 1,826 active members, 46 of whom are members of the Yale faculty, of whom 40 work at the School of Medicine.
“When a faculty member gets into the NAM, it makes a statement that they’re really at the top of their field,” Alpern said. “It’s really the most prestigious organization in the field of medicine.”
This year’s figure is an impressive one. Only 80 academics were elected, and according to Alpern, Yale typically only sees one to two electees per year.
The election process is selective and requires evaluation over several months, according to William Kearney, director of media relations for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. For the initial nomination, support from at least two current NAM members who are familiar with a candidate’s work is required.
Each candidate’s qualifications are then reviewed by NAM members in the same area of expertise. After discussion and straw polls, a committee tallies the final votes from each section and puts together a final ballot for the entire academy to vote on.
Duman, who is a psychiatry and neurobiology professor, was recognized for his studies of the brain and psychiatric illness and treatment. His research involves elucidating the mechanisms of antidepressants at molecular and cellular levels, which Duman said are a key achievement and hallmark of his lab’s work. Duman was nominated by Yale Department of Psychiatry Chairman John Krystal, who described his work as “trailblazing throughout his professional career.”
Günel, a genetics and neurobiology professor and the director of the Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Department of Neurosurgery, runs an active practice in addition to performing “cutting-edge research” on the genetics of neurological diseases, Alpern said. He added that balancing and combing these two professional pursuits is “an amazing talent.” Günel’s genetics research focuses on generating hypotheses to understand the root cause of diseases, a process that allows for personalized patient treatment.
“Putting all of our efforts into understanding these diseases at a very fundamental level leads to new mechanistic insight, which then are now translating into new therapies,” Günel said. “That sort of persistence and going deep is what I’m most proud of.”
McCormick, a neuroscience professor, conducts research in basic neuroscience. His work delves into the cellular and network mechanisms of the brain, answering questions such as what happens to the brain during epileptic seizures and how the brain controls arousal and attention. Pasko Rakic, McCormick’s nominator and a neurology and neurobiology professor, said McCormick is one of the most often cited scientists in his field, calling that honor objective evidence of the importance of his work.
Niklason, another new NAM member, is an anesthesiology and biomedical engineering professor. Alpern said Niklason’s engineering background is important in allowing her to actually develop her research into physical results. Niklason primarily works on arterial engineering and lung regeneration. She said that she is particularly proud of the progress her lab has made on arterial engineering, from developing initial concepts to completing recent clinical trials. Going forward, she said she is excited about the potential of cell therapy to treat lung disease.
The NAM is responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the federal government on health policy and management, but members can choose how involved they want to be in the academy’s program activities.
Niklason said she looks forward to actively contributing to “the ongoing dialogue at the national level” of health and science policy, which she cites as her long-term interest. Likewise, McCormick views his election to the academy as not only recognition of his work, but also an opportunity to make lasting contributions.
“I’ve been extremely lucky and fortunate to be a scientist, to have a productive career,” McCormick said. “I very much look forward to being able to use [my membership] as a new avenue to participate in something that’s beneficial to the U.S. and the world at large.”
Duman said he anticipates adding his expertise to analyses of psychiatric illnesses and new antidepressant agents. Günel said he also hopes that the NAM will allow him to move beyond his work as an academic and expand his interest in promoting human rights in addition to human health and education.
The NAM was formerly known as the Institute of Medicine.