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Pop the Cork!

By Rod Graham

It was a good spring for Dean Alfred Sommer.

Within a period of a few weeks last May, the School received an anonymous $100 million gift to combat malaria; two stellar population experts agreed to join the senior faculty; and Sommer, MD, MHS '73, became one of the few people in School history to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Created by the U.S. Congress in 1863 to advise the government in scientific and technical matters, the National Academy of Sciences is the nation's most prestigious scientific organization. The Academy currently has 1,900 active members and 300 foreign associates, of whom 170 have won Nobel Prizes. New members are elected each April in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

NAS members have traditionally come from the ranks of experts in the most fundamental of the sciences: cosmic physics, computational biology, structural chemistry. But, as Sommer understands it, his electors wanted in particular to expand the Academy's representation to physician-scientists and others in fields beyond the molecular sciences. "Since there's never been an ophthalmologist or an epidemiologist or a biostatistician elected to the NAS before, it's a pretty good guess that my work with vitamin A played a role," he says.

The dean was able to choose which NAS section he wanted to belong to, and selected Medical Physiology and Metabolism. "There were no sections having to do with public health or epidemiology," he says, "and very few that have to do with physicians or physician-scientists." His goals as a NAS member? "My major agenda will be to try and recognize people in the population sciences like epidemiology and biostatistics. For me it provides an opportunity to bring our sciences to the table and get more people recognized."

As it turns out, there was more good news for the dean. About two weeks after learning of his election to the NAS, Sommer got a call from France notifying him that he was to receive the Danone International Prize for Nutrition Research at the August 30 International Congress of Nutrition in Vienna. And a few days after that, he was told that in October he would receive the Bristol-Myers Squibb/Mead Johnson Award for Distinguished Nutrition Research.

And all these good tidings came on top of W. Harry Feinstone's surprise $3 million gift last October, which endowed the chairmanship of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology in the name of Sommer and his wife Jill.

Says Sommer, "It's interesting how things seem to happen in clusters for no particularly apparent reason — but we're always pleased when that happens."