October 16, 2014

Cornell Professor Emeritus Wins National Medal of Science

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By SOPHIA HO

Jerrold Meinwald, the Goldwin Smith professor of chemistry, Emeritus, won a 2014 Presidential National Medal of Science this month for his lifelong work in the field of chemistry.

The National Medal of Science is an honor bestowed by the President of the United States and recognizes individuals of “extraordinary knowledge” and who have made “extraordinary contributions” to America, according to The White House website. Meinwald received the national award from The White House Oct. 3rd, according to a University press release.

Meinwald said he and his colleague of 50 years, Thomas Eisner, the Jacob Gould Schurman professor of chemical ecology, Emeritus collaborated to pioneer the field of chemical ecology, which focuses on chemical communication. Eisner, who died in 2011, was also awarded the same honor for their work in 1994.

“It became an interesting field just about when I started my work at Cornell,” Meinwald said. “What got me interested in particular was [Eisner], who knew a huge amount of natural history. Many of the things that he would be interested in involved chemistry.”

According to Prof. David Collum, chemistry and chemical biology, Meinwald’s scientific work helped increase interest in the field of chemical ecology within the scientific community.

“[Meinwald’s] scientific prominence in helping define and develop what has become the extremely visible discipline of chemical communication has brought positive attention to the department from both the scientific community and the public at large,” Collum said.

Meinwald also said he and Eisner were the first to discover that pheromone signaling in insects was given off by both male and female insects.

“It took us five to 10 years to piece together this little story [of male pheromone communication],” he said. “Pheromone signals given off by males — by taking poisons extracted from plants — signaled protective attributes that passed off through sperm into the next generation.”

Meinwald said he and Eisner also isolated steroids, which fireflies use to make themselves taste unappealing and to prevent birds from eating them. Some common examples of steroids are cholesterol and testosterone, he said.

He added that their discoveries have also been utilized in the field of agricultural science.

“[Farmers] would spray pheromones in traps and [many types of] bugs would come to them,” Meinwald said. “You can confuse a population of males by spraying female pheromones everywhere, so they [cannot] find where the females [are] and the population would go down [because they cannot reproduce.]”

Meinwald also said he speculates that the future of chemical ecology is becoming increasingly important in the medical field, specifically in the area of bacteria quorum sensing — the ability to detect the density of bacteria around itself.

“We are about 10 percent human cells and 90 percent bacterial cells,” he said. “You can invent different antibiotics by having bacteria cells send different signals to each other.There are a lot of complicated diseases that rely on chemical communication.”

Meinwald said he encourages future generations to do work in the field of chemical ecology.

“[Eisner and I] were never studying the useful things — we were just trying to understand the principles of how these things work,” he said. “You don’t have to be that smart or inventive. Nature is there, it’s just waiting for you to come along and understand these things.”

Meinwald currently works on the editorial board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, is secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Science, and does work as part of the American Philosophical Society.

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