The National Academy of Sciences elects a Brazilian woman for the first time
June 05, 2013
By Cristina Caldas, Boston
Agência FAPESP – Dr. Ruth Nussenzweig, a professor at New York University (NYU), is the first Brazilian female scientist to be elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the United States in the 150-year history of this renowned institution.
Nussenzweig joins three other Brazilian researchers and professors: her son Michel Nussenzweig, of Rockefeller University; José Nelson Onuchic of Rice University; and José Scheinkman of Princeton University. Her election was announced on April 30.
In the category of Foreign Associate, another Brazilian member who was elected this year is Vanderlei Bagnato, a full professor at Universidade de São Paulo’s São Carlos Physics Institute (USP – São Carlos) and a coordinator of the Center for Optic and Photonic Research (CePOF), a FAPESP Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center (CEPID). In September 2012, Bagnato was elected as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican.
Bagnato joins Aloisio Araujo, Luiz Davidovich, Sérgio Henrique Ferreira, Ivan Izquierdo, Warwick Kerr, Jacob Palis and Francisco Mauro Salzano. Brazil’s representatives in the NAS total 13 scientists, including Max Birnstiel, who was born in Brazil and is now a Swiss national.
A professor in the Department of Parasitology at NYU’s School of Medicine, Dr. Nussenzweig has been working with her husband Victor Nussenzweig, who is also a researcher, since she was a medical student at USP Medical School. “At that time, we were just friends, and we worked on a project on Chagas Disease. We skipped school a lot,” she commented.
Known worldwide for her pioneering research on malaria, a disease transmitted by Anopheles mosquitos infected with Plasmodium parasites, Nussenzweig began to develop an experimental model to study immunity against the parasite.
“She was the first to show immunity against the sporozoite of Plasmodium, one the stages of the parasite’s development,” said Momtchilo Russo, a professor in the Department of Immunology within USP’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences.
In a study published in the 1960s, Dr. Nussenzweig immunized mice with irradiated sporozoites that were incapable of multiplying, and then immediately infected the same animals with normal sporozoites. She showed that the animals did not develop malaria. This discovery was her first major contribution to research on malaria vaccines.
Afterward, Dr. Nussenzweig isolated the antigen responsible for protecting animals from the disease and then began to work with vaccines and treatments. “The robust experimental model that she developed served as a basis for the development of the vaccine against malaria that is currently most advanced and has been tested in humans using the CSP (circumsporozoite protein) antigen that she isolated,” explained Ricardo Gazzinelli, a professor at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG).
Due to her pioneering work, Nussenzweig has had a major influence on several experimental biological areas, including immunology, biology, parasitology and the development of vaccines. “Her work in the area of immunology serves as guide for the development of a new generation of recombinant vaccines,” said Maurício Martins Rodrigues, a professor at the Universidade Federal de São Paulo who completed his postdoctoral studies at NYU with Ruth Nussenzweig.
Using techniques on the frontiers of science, Nussenzweig and her group were also the first to clone a parasite antigen and to produce a monoclonal antibody against the parasite antigen. Another of Nussenzweig’s legacies to science, and especially Brazilian science, has been training several students and postdoctoral researchers who are now important leaders in the areas of immunology, vaccinology and parasitology.
Asked how she reacted upon receiving the news of her election, Dr. Nussenzweig, who is nearly 85 years old, told Agência FAPESP that the distinction “came a little late for me, but I hope that it excites younger scientists.”
“The nomination should have happened 20 years ago, but it is certainly an unprecedented moment for Brazil,” highlights Rodrigues.
Ruth and Victor Nussenzweig are preparing to return to do research in Brazil through FAPESP’s pilot project, São Paulo Excellence Chairs (Spec), after decades of living abroad. The Spec program seeks to establish collaborations between institutions from São Paulo State and high-level researchers abroad.
“FAPESP has been very generous, and it has been very easy to work in collaboration with younger colleagues. Today, we no longer do the research. We discuss things, and that’s how we have a certain influence,” said Ruth.
Rodrigues, one of the professors who will work with the Nussenzweigs in Brazil, affirms that they are always a major source of stimulation for younger scientists. “They never stop wanting to discover new things, he said.