Courtesy of Yale News

The National Academy of Sciences recently awarded two Yale faculty members — John Tully ’64 and Richard Aslin — for their pioneering research, scientific leadership and mentorship ability.

Tully and Aslin were among 15 individuals recognized with 2020 awards for scientific achievement by the NAS, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the country. Tully received the NAS Award in Chemical Sciences, while Aslin was honored with the Atkinson Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences.

According to the NAS website, the organization was established by a congressional act signed by President Lincoln in 1863, to provide “independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.”

Tully and Aslin were previously inducted as members of the Academy — an honor which, before the creation of the Nobel Prize, was considered the highest honor a scientist could receive. The fact that both Tully and Aslin were recognized for outstanding achievement — having already received membership — reflects their high-level scientific achievement, according to Francesco Evangelista, a member of Tully’s lab.

Once a Yale undergraduate, Tully now serves a Sterling Professor of chemistry and professor of physics and applied physics at Yale. While the award recognized Tully’s 50 years of contribution in theoretical chemistry, his work on one phenomenon in particular — surface hopping — was highlighted on the Academy’s page for the 2020 award.

“Surface hopping is an approximation to the quantum mechanical laws that govern motion at the molecular level … The phrase ‘surface hopping’ refers to a sudden ‘hop’ from one electronic state to another,” Tully told the News.

He developed the “Fewest Switches Surface Hopping” method, which now serves as the standard prediction model for energy transfer. The algorithm is significant because it provides a model for the simulation of chemical reactions in which molecules jump from one electronic state to another.

Evangelista told the News that “[Tully’s’] receipt of the NAS award is particularly impressive because of [Tully’s] specialty.” He said that Tully is one of the “few theoretical chemists who has ever received this award.”

“I think that one of the best aspects of working with John is the incredible freedom he gives his students and postdocs,” he said. “John also has broad research interests, and as a mentor, he has encouraged me to focus on challenging new problems. I think this is, in part, one of the reasons why John’s research has had such a high impact on the field.”

Aslin serves as a senior research scientist at Haskins Laboratories — a Yale-affiliated laboratory — as well as a senior lecturer and professor at the Child Study Center at Yale. Aslin told the News that his career’s focus is the remarkable role of exposure in infant learning, dubbed “statistical learning,” a term coined by Aslin and his partners.

“The broader significance [of my research] is that much of what infants learn about their world happens by this process of mere exposure, and infants are remarkably sensitive to information in their world,’” Aslin said.

His original demonstration of statistical learning, published in a 1996 issue of Science, has now been cited more than 5000 times.

Sara Sanchez-Alonso, a postdoctoral research fellow at Haskins Laboratories, said that she appreciated the two years she spent with Aslin due to his mentorship.

“He knows when to provide structure and guidance, but also when to give you the freedom to grow independently as a scientist,” Sanchez-Alonso said.

The NAS website lauds Aslin’s support for his students and colleagues. Notably, in 2016, Aslin resigned his faculty position at the University of Rochester to protest a mishandled sexual harassment case that involved 16 female students.

The NAS awards will be presented to Aslin and Tully at the 157th annual meeting of the Academy on April 26.

Nicole Dirks | nicole.dirks@yale.edu