The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

This year's Penn AAAS fellows are (from top row to bottom row, left to right) Sara Cherry, Susan Davidson, Douglas Durian, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Katalin Karikó, I. Joseph Kroll, Mingyao Li, Hongjun Song, Duncan Watts, and E. John Wherry.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science named ten faculty Penn members as AAAS Honorary Fellows.

The organization —  the world’s largest scientific society and publisher of the “Science” journal family — recognized 564 scholars for their accomplishments, which spanned disciplines from technology and research to communication, according to AAAS’s website.

The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with four of the honored faculty members: Katalin Karikó, Sara Cherry, and Hongjun Song, all of the Perelman School of Medicine, as well as Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School of Communication.

Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery and a senior vice president at BioNTech, has been recognized extensively — including by TIME Magazine as a Hero of the Year — for the integral role her research played in the development of the messenger RNA-based COVID-19 vaccines. 

When Karikó began in researching the field of RNA in her native Hungary, there was relatively little knowledge about the molecule, she said. She was tasked with figuring out if RNA had an antiviral effect. After running out of funding in 1985, she came to Philadelphia and started working on a double-stranded RNA treatment for HIV, which ended up not being a plausible technique.

“In that time, when I was young and restless, most of the science was you add something and something happens, but you didn't know the mechanism,” Karikó said. “Not like today. My goodness. It's so much more exciting.”

When Karikó came to Penn in 1989 to work in neurosurgery, she also began experimenting with the single-stranded messenger RNA.

A few years later, she met Drew Weissman, now the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, who was interested in developing a vaccine based on the mRNA she was making. After years of further research, the pair determined that mRNA is immunogenic and capable of producing a vaccine that can target any specific virus. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they were ready to make a vaccine, she said.

“The future is already in the present,” Karikó said about scientific research.

Jamieson, the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, studies political communication, focusing specifically on science communication — which she said has become polarized in the political fields she studies.

“The research that’s being done at the Annenberg Public Policy Center is trying to identify the susceptibilities that increase the likelihood that the public will accept misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories, and, once we’ve identified those susceptibilities, attempting to determine how best they can be overcome,” Jamieson said. 

Jamieson also emphasized the role that undergraduate students at Penn play in the center's research.

“The research that we're doing is in partnership with parts of our undergraduate population who will go on to change the world as a result of the education they receive at Penn and the activities in which they participate," she said. 

Cherry, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, studies how human viruses infect humans and other animals. In her lab, she said, she studies how viruses overcome pathways to infect hosts.

“I think a lot of our research is giving us a fundamental understanding of how viruses are able to infect humans and other animals, and those understandings can lead to new therapeutic developments,” Cherry said. 

Song is the Perelman Professor of Neuroscience, the co-director of the IRM Neurodevelopment & Regeneration Program and the director of the Epigenetics Institute Neuroepigenetics Interest Group. He investigates brain development and plasticity — studying how the brain is formed, how it functions and how mental illness and neurological disorders develop.

“I hope we identify ways toward [their] potential treatment,” Song said.   

The other honored fellows from Penn are Mingyao Li and E. John Wherry of the Perelman School of Medicine, Douglas Durian and I. Joseph Kroll of the School of Arts & Sciences, Susan Davidson of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Duncan Watts, the 23rd Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor with faculty appointments in the Annenberg School of Communication, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Wharton School.