Yale News

On April 22, fourteen Yale faculty members were among the 252 new members elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, a multi-disciplinary organization dedicated to examining and addressing important issues in the U.S. and around the world.

Two of these faculty members were professors in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department: Ronald Breaker, known for his research of RNA molecules, and Akiko Iwasaki, recognized for her study of immune responses to viral pathogens.

“It is a great honor to have Dr. Iwasaki and Dr. Breaker elected to the Academy,” MCDB Department Chair Vivian Irish wrote in an email to the News. “It recognizes their disciplinary excellence and their leadership in promoting scientific inquiry, informing public policy, and using evidence based approaches to improve our society.”

For both Breaker and Iwasaki, science has been a lifelong passion. Breaker, a Sterling Professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, grew up in a small town on his family’s dairy farm, where he was surrounded by biology. This early interest in science led him to pursue a career in biochemistry and ask fundamental questions about the origin of life.

Much of Breaker’s work has given credence to the RNA world hypothesis, which states that before there was DNA and proteins, RNA molecules filled all of the functions necessary for primitive forms of life, he explained. According to the theory, it was this primitive RNA world ecosystem that eventually gave rise to DNA that stores genetic information and proteins, which allow for a greater diversity of enzyme function, Breaker said. 

“All modern cells are built on the RNA world framework,” Breaker said. “Thus, we can study the ancient organisms by examining the role of RNA in modern organisms. That was clear to me as an early student of biology, and now my lab can not only study modern forms of life, but also to peer back in evolutionary time to try to understand what life was like before proteins and DNA.”

On the subject of his career as a scientist, Breaker emphasized the aspects of adventure and exploration that come with investigating and discovering new ideas.

One of Breaker’s most significant discoveries was riboswitches, which are elements of RNA molecules that allow them to regulate their own production — another major piece of evidence supporting the RNA world hypothesis.

“There are those special moments when you realize you’ve made a wonderful step forward in your field,” Breaker said. “I feel fortunate to have been involved in research efforts that have advanced my field on several different occasions.”

Akiko Iwasaki, Waldemar Von Zedtwitz professor of immunobiology and molecular, cellular and developmental biology, echoes this love for eureka moments, which, according to her, come rarely but are incredibly thrilling.

Unlike Breaker, Iwasaki’s love for science bloomed later in life. During her youth, she was interested in Japanese literature, and it was only in high school that a math teacher sparked her passion for STEM. Now, Iwasaki leads a lab that studies antiviral immune responses and how they can protect from infections but also sometimes cause disease by hyperstimulation or mistargeting.

Iwasaki’s research became even more critical with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which her lab focused on understanding immune responses to SARS-CoV-2. 

Iwasaki expressed her gratitude and excitement about adding to the work of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“I feel so fortunate to be part of such an important organization, and I would like to take this opportunity to contribute to the academy and to the rest of the world,” Iwasaki wrote in an email to the News. “I immigrated to the US because here I can pursue science with complete freedom. I can be creative and innovative, and totally be myself while doing it. My big goal is to help create an environment where the next generation of scientists are supported and enabled to pursue science, regardless of their gender and ethnicity.”

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences was founded in 1780 during the American Revolution by scholars including John Adams and John Hancock.

Veronica Lee covers breakthrough research for SciTech. She is a sophomore in Branford College majoring in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.