We’d Like to Thank the Academy

UF scientists awarded NAS membership.

Besides a passion for research and a sense of humor, UF physicist Art Hebard and UF plant biologist Doug Soltis share one other thing: membership in the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy recognizes top achievement in and devotion to one’s field in selecting its members, who are scientific consultants to the U.S. government. More than 2,000 esteemed scientists compose the Academy, and the University of Florida now has provided 29 of them.

“In our profession, it’s the highest honor you can get for your science.”

“In our profession, it’s the highest honor you can get for your science,” says Soltis, who was honored for his integral role in the Tree of Life, a phylogenetic project aiming to catalogue all living species on Earth. UF’s genetics initiative — now the Genetics Institute — appealed to Soltis, and he arrived at UF with joint appointments in the Florida Museum and the Department of Biology’s new evolutionary biology program in 2002. UF helped provide “a perfect storm of technology, the ability to see snippets of DNA, and the necessary computer power and algorithms” for the Tree of Life, he says. “It’s something I dreamed about for 25 to 30 years.” Now, this first-generation college graduate is looking forward to having a broader platform to discuss his work and its policy implications. “I’m concerned about biodiversity and its fate in the world,” he says. “[NAS] is a way to do more messaging.” Much like the Tree of Life, Soltis considers the scientific community to be an interconnected web of knowledge. “It takes a village,” he says.

Hebard agrees. “Science is a pyramid and you build it with the help of your colleagues and associates,” he says. As a childhood engineer turned humanities student turned industrial physicist, he finally found fulfillment in academia, specializing in condensed-matter physics. “A friend said you don’t age gracefully in industrial research, so I came to the academic world,” he says. He arrived at UF in 1996. Now, working in his custom lab in UF’s physics building, Hebard says that every day is an unexpected journey — it’s the nature of his field of inquiry. At UF, “I’m associating with people I really enjoy,” he says. “[NAS] really does include a lot of people I’ve worked with. For that, I’m thankful.” The Academy’s feeling is mutual.

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