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Last week, two Yale professors were elected as fellows to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific society.

Donald Engelman PhD ’67, professor of molecular biophysics & biochemistry, and Debra Fischer, professor of astronomy, were named fellows to the AAAS in recognition of their contributions to their respective scientific disciplines. They are counted among 564 “scientists, engineers and innovators” from around the world in the 2021 class. 

“I am thrilled that the AAAS has recognized Professors Engelman and Fischer,” Tamar Gendler GRD ’67, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an email. “Professor Engelman’s work has illuminated complex mechanisms at the cellular level, while Professor Fischer has discovered countless planets beyond our galaxy. Both are deep thinkers and brilliant methodological innovators. Together, they represent the incredible breadth of scientific inquiry in the FAS.” 

During his career at Yale, Engelman has previously served as a former acting dean of Yale College for the academic term of 1992-1993 and chair of the Department of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry in 1991. 

Alongside his research focus on biological membranes, he teaches MB&B 105, Biology the World and Us — a course he teaches because of its “important mission” in communicating scientific knowledge to primarily non-science majors. 

Engelman, who is originally from California, said that he received an undergraduate degree in physics from Reed College in Oregon before pursuing a doctorate in Molecular Biophysics from Yale. 

During his doctorate days, he developed a fascination with biological membranes. After postdoctoral fellowships at the University of California, San Francisco and King’s College in London, Engelman returned to Yale in 1970.

Approximately 10 years ago, Engelman notes, researchers in his lab accidentally discovered a water-soluble membrane protein — a peptide — with interesting properties. Ordinarily, the peptide binds reversibly to the surface of cells.  In acidic cellular environments, however, according to Engelman, his pH Low Insertion Peptide (pHLIP) forms a “trans-membrane helix” that inserts itself across the membrane. 

According to Engelman, that finding is “significant” because researchers can attach “passengers” to the peptide, like diagnostic imaging agents or therapeutic molecules that are normally unable to enter those cells. When attached to pHLIP, those target biomolecules can be delivered to cells in selectively acidic environments characteristic of cancer. 

By taking advantage of the high cell acidity found in tumors, Engelman believes that the pHLIP mechanism “is very likely to be useful in treating and diagnosing” numerous diseases, including cancer. 

Using his research, Engelman started a company, pHLIP Inc., which is currently running phase-one clinical trials for cancer treatments that could precisely diagnose and remove tumors. In those trials, researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center employ pHLIP to highlight the acidic cells of breast cancer tumors by attaching a fluorescent molecule to Engelman’s peptide.

Engelman’s company has also licensed the technology to New Haven-based biotechnology start-up Cybrexa Therapeutics for clinical trials, which Engelman describes as “promising.”

As pHLIP binds to the tumor cells, it causes them to light up underneath an infrared imaging device. 

“[The device] superimposes a color image on top of the normal light image that the surgeon usually sees,” Engelman said. “So the surgeon can see exactly where the tumor is and isn’t. And that means that you can do very conservative removal and it might help women who otherwise might be more disfigured by the surgery and a radical mastectomy.”

According to Tal Woliner, the chief communications officer of the AAAS, the implications of Engelman’s research forms a main reason why the AAAS recognized him for his “pioneering efforts in understanding of principles of membrane organization.” 

Previously, Engelman has also been named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is right up there as an important landmark for me,” Engelman said. “I’m particularly gratified because it reflects the evaluation of my colleagues and so there is nothing better than enjoying the good regard of your colleagues.”

Branford Head of College Enrique De La Cruz, the chair of the Department of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry, said that Engelman “epitomizes the classical Yale scientist.” He characterized Engelman as a “very deep thinker” who is “extremely rigorous in his research,” yet “incredibly creative and innovative.”

De La Cruz also added that a “good fraction of people at peer institutions who went through Yale have gone through his lab or classes.”  

“Members of the scientific community have gone out of their way to nominate him into this group of individuals,” De La Cruz said. “[Members nominated to the AAAS] have left a pedagogical and scientific footprint in the scientific community, as well as the broad general community. That reflects his contributions, but also members of the community’s willingness to go out of their way to ensure that he’s recognized for it.”

Yale’s other 2021 AAAS Fellow, Debra Fischer, is currently on a three-year leave of absence to direct the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences and could not be reached for comment. According to Wolimer, Fischer’s induction as an AAAS fellow stems from her “distinguished contributions over many years to the search for and discovery of exoplanets, and the communication of science to the wider community.” 

Fischer has also been recognized as a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association of Arts and Sciences. At Yale, she taught undergraduate and graduate students, including ASTRO 130, Origins and the Search for Life in the Universe. 

“Debra Fischer, is one of the most authoritative astronomers when it comes to searching for exoplanets,” said Sarbani Basu, chair of Yale’s department of astronomy. “She was the first person to discover a multi-planet exoplanetary system.” 

When Fischer came to Yale, she developed EXPRES, or the EXtreme PREcision Spectrometer, with the Yale Exoplanet Laboratory. According to Basu, EXPRES is “one of the highest resolution spectrographs that currently exists in the world.” The device could allow Fischer and her team to find an “Earth 2.0,”  or smaller exoplanets similar in size to Earth, and at distances from stars similar to Earth’s distance from the Sun.

Engelman and Fischer will receive an official certificate and a blue and gold rosette pin to commemorate their election. They will be celebrated later in the year during an in-person gathering if the public health situation allows, according to the press release from AAAS. 

Previous AAAS fellows have included author and activist W.E.B DuBois, Admiral Grace Hopper GRD ’34, and Former Obama Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu. 

AAAS Fellows have been elected annually since 1874.

Yash Roy covered City Hall and State Politics for the News. He also served as a Production & Design editor, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion chair for the News. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, he is a '25 in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.
Giri Viswanathan was a Science and Technology Editor for the News. Previously, he served as a Photography Editor while covering the School of Public Health for the SciTech Desk. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Giri is a junior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs with a certificate in Global Health Studies.