UCSF's Bruce Alberts Wins Lasker-Koshland Award for Lifetime of Research, Science Advocacy

By Pete Farley

Portrait of Bruce Alberts
Bruce Alberts, PhD

UC San Francisco biochemist Bruce Alberts, PhD, has received the 2016 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science, one of the highest honors in biomedicine.

The award, bestowed every two years by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, honors Alberts for his “fundamental discoveries in DNA replication and protein biochemistry; for visionary leadership in directing national and international scientific organizations to better people’s lives; and for passionate dedication to improving education in science and mathematics.”

Currently the Chancellor’s Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education, Alberts joined the UCSF faculty in 1976. His 50-year career has been one of the most illustrious in modern biology.

“Bruce has always been a leader, not only in his own pivotal research, but in his public-spirited efforts on behalf of all students and practitioners of science, from kindergartner to senior investigator,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “His contributions, as both scientist and citizen, have touched lives worldwide.”

Work in Science and His Push for Science Education

Rescuing Biomedical Research

Bruce Alberts says the current funding structure for biomedical research is discouraging ambitious work of early-career scientists – and he wants to fix that.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Alberts began studying how DNA makes copies of itself before cells divide. His work unveiled fundamental mechanisms in this process, which has major implications for human disease, as dozens of illnesses are caused either by errors in DNA replication or by flaws in the biological systems that repair those errors.

But Alberts is equally well known as a tireless advocate for science and science education. His most recent effort in this realm is as co-founder of Rescuing Biomedical Research (RBR), an alliance of researchers who share the view that “the current [scientific] culture is not conducive to conducting the most creative and innovative science and threatens to turn away the next generation of brilliant young scientists.” RBR is formulating strategies to reform scientific training and funding, and to ensure the integrity of research.

After five years as chair of UCSF’s Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Alberts took a leave from his faculty position to serve as the full-time president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). He served two six-year terms, from 1993 to 2005.

During his leadership of the NAS, Alberts was instrumental in developing the landmark National Science Education Standards, which strongly advocated for active science learning in classrooms, through so-called inquiry-based science education. According to the NAS, the Standards promote scientific literacy in a framework of “excellence and equity”: they “apply to all students, regardless of age, gender, cultural or ethnic background, disabilities, aspirations, or interest and motivation in science.”

The UCSF Science & Health Education Partnership is a collaboration in which UCSF scientists teach SFUSD pupils as well as provide training, resources, and enrichment to teachers. Photo by Elena Zhukova

To support quality science education for K-12 students in San Francisco, Alberts co-founded the UCSF Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP), which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2017. This collaboration between UCSF and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), in which UCSF scientists teach SFUSD pupils as well as provide training, resources, and enrichment to teachers, is one of the most successful and longest-running community outreach projects at UCSF, and it is recognized nationally and internationally as a model partnership between scientists and teachers.

Writer, Editor and Winner of Numerous Awards

Alberts was also one of the original authors of the seminal textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell. Now in its sixth edition, “MBOC” is an unparalleled achievement in scientific publishing that has introduced countless college, medical, and graduate students to the field, with well over two million copies sold.

He served as president of the American Society for Cell Biology in 2007, and was the editor-in-chief of Science magazine from 2008 to 2013.

Alberts received his undergraduate degree in Biochemical Sciences, summa cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, from Harvard College in 1960. He received his PhD from Harvard University five years later, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institut de Biologie Moleculaire in Geneva, Switzerland in 1966.

Bruce Alberts stands with President Barack Obama during a National Medal of Science award ceremony at the White House in November 2014.
Bruce Alberts (left), PhD, received the 2014 National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony. Photo courtesy of National Science & Technology Medals Foundation

Before joining UCSF, Alberts was Damon Pfeiffer Professor of Life Sciences at Princeton University.

Among his numerous honors, Alberts is a recipient of the National Medal of Science, given by President Barack Obama in 2014; a member of the National Academy of Sciences; a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; a foreign member of The Royal Society, plus 10 other national academies of science; and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He holds 19 honorary degrees from institutions around the world. Alberts also served as a United States Science Envoy under President Obama from 2009 to 2011, and he continues to have a special focus on Indonesia through close collaborations with the Indonesian Academy of Sciences that are supported by USAID.

Alberts has stressed the need to redefine what is meant by “science education.”

“I am not deeply concerned about how many scientific facts the public knows,” he said. “It is much more important that every educated person acquire ‘scientific habits of mind,’ always insisting on making decisions based on logic and evidence.”

Watch a video honoring Bruce Alberts' work by the Lasker Foundation:

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy; a graduate division with nationally renowned programs in basic, biomedical, translational and population sciences; and a preeminent biomedical research enterprise. It also includes UCSF Health, which comprises three top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, and other partner and affiliated hospitals and healthcare providers throughout the Bay Area.