November 20, 2000

Cornell Honors 'Father of Chemical Ecology'

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The packed amphitheater was perfectly silent as several hundred people listened intently to Dr. Fotis Kafatos. Filling a massive screen with countless rows of genetic sequencing, the scientist translated the seemingly hieroglyphic rows of “CCTTTACACCGA” into a recognizable language.

Kafatos, of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, was the second speaker in a series of three, chosen to honor Prof. Thomas Eisner, the Jacob Gould Shurman Professor of Chemical Ecology. As the “Father of Chemical Ecology”, Eisner has been a mentor to many in the field, including Kafatos.

Friday afternoon from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., an eclectic panel of speakers honored Eisner. Held in the Proscenium Theatre in The Center for Theatre Arts, notables such as Dr. Edward O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, John Hildebrand, the former president of the International Society for Chemical Ecology, and President Hunter R. Rawlings III spoke to honor Prof. Eisner.

Rawlings opened the symposium entitled “Learning From Nature” and congratulated Eisner on his immense contributions to not only Cornell, but to the world.

The symposium centered around celebrating the lifelong work of Eisner. He has been described as “the founder of Chemical Ecology,” said Janis Strope, Prof. Eisner’s assistant. Eisner is also the Director of the Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology, has co-authored seven books, conducted field research on over four continents and is a recipient of the National Medal of Science.

As well as all of his published articles and field research, “he is a wonderful teacher,” Strope said. “Through his teaching alone he reaches a lot of people- scientific and non-scientific.”

Gathering Chemical Ecologists from around the country, the symposium gave the various speakers opportunities to share recent breakthroughs in the field of Chemical Ecology.

The symposium included brief remarks by Jerrold Meinwald, the G Smith professor of chemistry, President Emeritus Dale R. Corson, Roger Payne, Visiting Prof. Diane Ackerman of the society for humanities, Prof. Roald Hoffman, chemistry and President Emeritus Frank H. T. Rhodes. John H. Law moderated the event and Cornell’s Prof. Charles Walcott, neurobiology, delivered closing remarks.

Kafatos, the second speaker in the series, delivered a speech entitled, “Life at the Molecular Level: The Malaria Parasite and the Mosquito Vector.” Summarizing his recent laboratory work, he discussed his “attempt to locate the Malaria resistant gene”. Displaying columns of numbers, charts and data graphs, he also reached the non-scientific audience members through his speech, “We are actually constructing a physical map of the mosquito genome.”

The goal of Kafatos’ work is to discover genetic map for the malaria virus. In his speech he said, “You only need the tip of the leg of a mosquito to trace its DNA from end to end,” said Kafatos. By studying the minutia of such a tiny creature, he and his colleagues hope to “use sophisticated genetic mapping” in order “to develop new strategies for controlling malaria,” he said.

After hearing Kafatos speak, Brian Finucane ’03 described Kafatos’ speech as an attempt “to explain the interplay between the mosquito, the human, and malaria.”

According to Strope, the symposium was a success. “It’s going really well,” Strope said, “We’ve gotten a great turn out.”

Finucane was also impressed, “In 20 minutes of sitting there I learned more than in three weeks of Genetics 281,” said Finucane.

The symposium not only succeeded in honoring Eisner, but served as a forum for some of the scientific community to share and exchange recently acquired knowledge that may one day lead to medical breakthroughs that could save millions of lives.

“Unless you know the parasite, you have no rational way of controlling it,” Kafatos said.

Archived article by Christen Eddy