CNS faculty earn university distinguished professor title

Four Michigan State University (MSU) College of Natural Science (CNS) professors were among nine faculty members named university distinguished professors in recognition of their achievements in the classroom, laboratory and community: Georg Bollen, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the experimental systems division for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB); Sheng Yang He, professor of plant biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator; Dean DellaPenna, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; and Elizabeth Simmons, professor of physics and dean of Lyman Briggs College.

The designations, recommended by President Lou Anna K. Simon, were approved by the MSU Board of Trustees at its June 21 meeting.

The title of university distinguished professor is among the highest honors that can be bestowed on a faculty member by the university. Those selected for the title have been recognized nationally and internationally for the importance of their teaching, research and outreach achievements. Individuals holding the professorship will receive, in addition to their salary, a stipend of $5,000 per year for five years to support professional activities.

“Professors Bollen, He, DellaPenna and Simmons are outstanding scientists and very significant contributors to Michigan State,” said R. James Kirkpatrick, CNS dean. “The entire college is very proud of their achievements.”

Georg Bollen image

Georg Bollen

Bollen is one of the world’s most accomplished physicists working at the interface between atomic and nuclear physics. For his pioneering work on Penning trap mass spectrometry of rare isotopes, he received the prestigious International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) Senior Scientist Medal in Fundamental Metrology, and was awarded an American Physical Society fellowship.

At MSU since 2000, Bollen established a low energy beam and ion trap (LEBIT), the first — and so far only — Penning trap mass measurement program for rare isotopes produced in flight. This allowed him and his team to perform measurements that have important ramifications for nuclear physics, nuclear astrophysics and fundamental interactions. The great success of LEBIT laid the foundation for the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory’s (NSCL) new experimental program with stopped and reaccelerated rare isotope beams, which will be world-unique and of central importance for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB).

Bollen has been a key player in MSU’s bid for FRIB and in research and development that laid the foundation for important parts of the FRIB design. As director of FRIB’s Experimental Systems Division, he is responsible for the systems for production and delivery of the rare isotopes that will enable FRIB science, and he leads an applied isotope science initiative at NSCL and FRIB.

“I am honored and humbled to have been named university distinguished professor,” Bollen said. “MSU is an extraordinary place for enabling innovation and great science, and I’m grateful for being allowed to contribute to it.”

Sheng-Yang He

Sheng-Yang He

Sheng Yang He is an internationally recognized leader in research on plant-pathogen interactions. He has made numerous groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of the molecular mechanisms by which bacterial pathogens infect plants and by which plants resist pathogens. He and his colleagues were the first to demonstrate that bacteria have a specialized bacterial appendage, called the harp pilus, which they use to inject essential virulence determinants into plant cells.

In 2011, He was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (HHMI-GBMF) investigator. He is one of only 15 in the country to receive this honor and the first from MSU. He is also an honorary scientist of the Rural Development Administration of the Republic of Korea, an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and president-elect of the International Society for Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions.

“I am very honored to be named a university distinguished professor,” He said. “MSU and the College of Natural Science have provided a wonderful environment to develop a scientific career in plant and microbial sciences. I am indebted to my former and current lab members for their many contributions and to my colleagues at MSU, especially in the U. S. Department of Energy Plant Research Lab and the Department of Plant Biology, for their guidance and memorable collaborations.”

Dean DellaPenna image

Dean DellaPenna

DellaPenna is regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on the biosynthesis of nutritionally important micronutrients in plants. His pioneering research on carotenoids (e.g., beta carotene and lutein) and vitamin E biosynthesis in plants employs the tools of biochemistry, genetics and genomics in creative ways to uncover the enzymes that plants use to make these key molecules. His research also reveals the complex ways in which these vitamins contribute to the growth and stress tolerance of plants.

DellaPenna has been instrumental in pushing the international community to take on the challenge of using genomics and biochemistry to tackle the biofortification of foods important to people in developing countries. This has led to collaborative projects funded by international agencies, the Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation to improve the nutritional quality of rice, maize and other foods for undernourished people in Africa and other countries.

“It is truly an honor to be selected for this award, and I want to thank all the people in and outside my lab who, over the years, have made this possible,” DellaPenna said. “This award is a reflection of the tremendous environment for intellectual and scientific inquiry that MSU provides, not only for its faculty, but also for the teams of postdoctoral researchers, students and technicians with whom we all work on a daily basis to move our scientific questions and knowledge forward.”

Elizabeth Simmons image

Elizabeth Simmons

Simmons has an international reputation in theoretical particle physics as an expert on the origins of electroweak symmetry breaking, the nature of the top quark, and the prospects for discovering new particles and forces. She is also a nationally recognized leader in supporting under-represented groups in the sciences. As a result, she was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

At the same time, Simmons excels as an academic leader. She led Lyman Briggs from a school within the College of Natural Science back to its original status as a residential college in 2007. The transition, and the simultaneous 25 percent expansion of the student body, required extensive collaboration with colleagues and students across campus. Simmons was honored with MSU’s Robert F. Banks Award for Institutional Leadership in February and will serve as an American Council on Education Fellow in 2013-14.

“I am deeply honored to be named a university distinguished professor,” Simmons said. “MSU’s ongoing commitment to inclusion and academic excellence makes it an inspiring place to work.”

For the complete list of MSU faculty members who were named 2013 university distinguished professors, visit