This year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has given 20 awards to scientists for major contributions in fields as diverse as neuroscience, computational astrophysics, and evolutionary genetics. Among those recognized is Shu-ou Shan, the Altair Professor of Chemistry and executive officer for biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Caltech. Shan's principal area of research tracks protein biogenesis from its molecular beginnings to the biological pathways proteins follow on their way to their cellular destinations.
"A core problem that biochemists strive to explain," Shan says, "is how the complexity and organization of living cells arise from the self-assembly processes of inanimate biomolecules." It is a long and twisting road from the instructions provided by a genetic code to the creation of new proteins and the manifestation of biological effects. Much can happen along the way. Shan's research has delved into the various selection and triage mechanisms—these can be thought of as proofreaders and filters—that intervene to ensure that proteins are properly assembled and delivered to their correct locations.
"What fascinates me the most about biology is that molecules seem to 'know' what they need to do," Shan says. "We increasingly realize that many factors and pathways act, at the beginning of a protein's life, to send them to different 'fates' in the cell. How do these factors coordinate with each other in space and time to make these decisions?" The ultimate goal of Shan's work is to explain—or even better, predict—what will happen to a new protein as it is released from the ribosome that links amino acids together to synthesize these proteins.
The NAS Award in Molecular Biology was first granted in 1962. Fifteen awardees have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (including David Baltimore, president emeritus of Caltech and the Judge Shirley Hufstedler Professor of Biology) or Chemistry, and 10 have received the National Medal of Science. "It is humbling to be in the company of this outstanding group of scientists," Shan says. "I am grateful to my mentors throughout my career as well as my colleagues at Caltech who supported me all these years. Most importantly, I want to thank all the students, postdocs, and scientists who actually did the work to drive the science forward. The award belongs as much to them as it does to me."