Plant Cell Biologist Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Xuemei Chen’s election brings the number of current UC Riverside faculty elected to the prestigious academy to six

Photo shows Xuemei Chen.

Xuemei Chen is a professor of plant cell and molecular biology at UC Riverside.Photo credit: L. Duka

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Xuemei Chen, a professor of plant cell and molecular biology at the University of California, Riverside, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for her excellence in original scientific research.

Membership in the NAS is one of the highest honors given to a scientist or engineer in the United States.  Chen will be inducted into the academy next April during its annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Elected along with 83 other new members and 21 foreign associates from 14 countries, Chen brings the number of current UC Riverside faculty elected to the NAS to six.

There are currently 2,179 active NAS members. Among the NAS’s renowned members are Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright, and Alexander Graham Bell. Nearly 200 living NAS members have won Nobel Prizes.

“The election of Professor Xuemei Chen to the NAS is fitting recognition of her groundbreaking work in the areas of plant meristem development and micro RNA molecules,” said Marylynn V. Yates, the dean of UCR’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS).  “By uncovering molecular mechanisms that are common in plants and animals, this knowledge can potentially be translated into designing therapeutic small RNAs to treat human diseases. CNAS is very fortunate to have on our faculty a scientist of Dr. Chen’s caliber and dedication to solving important societal problems.”

Chen grew up in Harbin in the northeastern Heilongjiang province in China, and was one of two high school graduates in the province to be admitted into the Biology Department at Beijing University, where she majored in plant physiology and biochemistry from 1984 to 1988.

Through the China-US Biology Examination and Admission (CUSBEA) program that selected top Chinese students for Ph.D. studies in US institutions, Chen entered the Ph.D. program at Cornell University in 1989. She studied chloroplast gene expression at the Boyce Thompson Institute and obtained her Ph.D. degree in 1995. She then joined the California Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral fellow to study the genetic mechanisms underlying floral patterning.

She started her independent career as an assistant professor at the Waksman Institute, Rutgers University, NJ, in 1999. During the studies of floral patterning genes, she and her group became one of the first discoverers of microRNAs in plants and subsequently a major force in dissecting the biogenesis, modification, and degradation of microRNAs. In 2005, she won the Board of Trustees Research Fellowship for Scholarly Excellence at Rutgers University.

Chen moved to UC Riverside in 2005, and was promoted to full professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences in 2009 and an endowed chair professor in 2010.

She is frequently invited to speak at key national and international meetings where her seminal contributions have established her as a recognized leader in both the plant and RNA silencing research communities.

In 2011, she was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute – Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator. She is the recipient of the prestigious Charles Albert Shull award from the American Society of Plant Biologists and the University Scholar Award from UCR.

“Xuemei has made pioneering contributions to our understanding of how cells in an undifferentiated meristem of a plant shoot ultimately form a flower,” said Natasha Raikhel, the founding director of UCR’s Center for Plant Cell Biology (CEPCEB) and the current director of the Institute for Integrative Genome Biology (IIGB). “Her groundbreaking discoveries of the biological functions of micro RNAs in plants have paved the way for similar discoveries in animals. In addition to her extraordinary research achievements, Xuemei is an esteemed teacher and regular contributor to the research and training endeavors of CEPCEB.”

CEPCEB now has three NAS members: Chen, Raikhel, and Susan Wessler. The other NAS members at UCR are James Dieterich, William Jury, and Alexander Raikhel. All six are faculty members in CNAS.

The NAS is a private, nonprofit honorific society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furthering science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Established in 1863, the academy has served to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art” whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.

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