Two science faculty members were appointed this month to endowed professorships: Jordan Peccia is now the Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Environmental Engineering, and Vivian Irish is now the Eaton Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology.

“It is a big honor to receive one of these chaired professorships at Yale,” Peccia said. “I’m very humbled.”

The position of endowed chair is “the most prestigious honor a university can bestow on an accomplished faculty member,” according to the University’s website. Peccia’s and Irish’s professorships were announced on Feb. 7.

Peccia and Irish both conduct research at the forefront of their fields, environmental biotechnology and developmental biology, respectively.

Peccia said his lab uses engineering and biotechnology to solve environmental problems. At the foundation of the lab, his team looked into a kind of sewage treatment, called biosludge. Researchers measured the pathogens in processed biosludge, which is used for fertilizer. After recognizing that biosludge contains dangerous contaminants, Peccia designed a way to make the product less harmful.

Over the past decade, the Peccia lab has concentrated on the microscopic life of buildings, which Peccia calls “microbiology of the built environment.” Microbiology examines life on the scale that the human eye can’t see, like bacteria and viruses. Studying the microbes we are exposed to inside buildings has clear relevance; we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, Peccia said.

Peccia said that there is much research still to be done on this topic.

“I’m really excited about our work with mold in buildings,” he said, adding that it would be interesting to investigate the growth of mold after natural disasters. He also proposed developing a test to measure the presence of mold in a room, which would simplify the sanitation process.

While Peccia’s work takes a microscopic focus, Irish’s studies concern something we see everyday: plants. Irish’s lab focuses on plant growth and development. She uses chemistry, biology and computer modeling to study the growth of petals in flowers. For the most part, Irish said, her group uses thale cress, a small weed, in its studies.

“My group has also worked on a number of other species, including tomato, petunia, poppy and citrus, depending on what is most appropriate for the questions we are asking,” said Irish, who has also served as the chair of Yale’s Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology department since 2016.

Both Irish and Peccia agreed that the professorships will have little impact on their future pursuits.

“I don’t think the Eaton professorship will change my research directions, but I am very grateful for this recognition and for the validation it provides,” Irish said. Peccia added that while the title represents a significant honor, the professorship will not change his research capacities.

The appointees join the ranks of those who have held the professorship in the past. The previous recipient of the Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professorship was T. Kyle Vanderlick, the former dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. During her tenure, Vanderlick founded the Center of Engineering Innovation & Design as well as the Advanced Graduate Leadership program.

Researchers in Peccia’s lab said they were excited to see her honored.

“I wasn’t at all surprised when I heard that Jordan has been honored with an endowed professorship,” said Alexa Bakker GRD ’21, a student in Peccia’s lab. “Whenever I lose sight of the importance and the potential that my research has — as graduate students often do — he never fails to restore my enthusiasm with just a simple conversation. In fact, I think most students feel better after even the briefest conversation with Jordan about anything.”

Ratanachat Racharaks GRD ’20 agreed, saying Peccia supported and guided him when Racharaks proposed a genetic engineering project, even though Peccia knows little about the field. Four years later, Racharaks is still working on the project. He also commended Racharaks easygoing attitude.

“He’s one of the most down-to-earth professors that I’ve ever met,” he said.

The Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professorship in Engineering was established in 2000 by a gift from the Thomas E. Golden Realty Company. The Eaton Professorship has existed since 1906.

Jessica Pevner | jessica.pevner@yale.edu