Two UCSF Faculty Elected to National Academy of Sciences in 2020

Researchers Honored for Fundamental Insights into Brain Development and Molecular Imaging

By Nicholas Weiler

UC San Francisco structural biologist Yifan Cheng, PhD, and neuroscientist John L.R. Rubenstein, MD, PhD, have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

portrait of Yifan Cheng in his lab
Yifan Cheng, PhD

Cheng, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has been at the forefront of a revolution in atomic-resolution molecular imaging using a technique called cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM).

Cheng’s technical innovations in cryoEM have allowed scientists to obtain high-resolution views of biologically important proteins in their native state, including the atomic details of their components, their spatial arrangements and interactions between them. In collaboration with the lab of David Julius, PhD, Cheng’s lab revealed the first structures of TRPV1, an ion channel in the membranes of nerve cells that detects both heat and the spiciness of chili peppers. Cheng joined the UCSF faculty in 2006.

portrait of John L.R. Rubenstein
John L.R. Rubenstein, MD, PhD

Rubenstein, the Nina Ireland Distinguished Professor in Child Psychiatry in UCSF’s Department of Psychiatry, studies how the developing brain organizes itself – with a particular focus on how nerve cells known as inhibitory interneurons integrate themselves into brain circuits to properly regulate brain activity.

Rubenstein’s group has consistently worked to apply their fundamental research to understand how developmental processes may go awry in disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, mental retardation, and epilepsy. For example, Rubenstein’s research on the development of forebrain structures such as the neocortex and basal ganglia have led to collaborations with Arturo Alvarez-Buylla, PhD, Scott Baraban, PhD, and Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, developing methods for interneuron transplantation to treat epilepsies and other forebrain disorders. Rubenstein has been on the UCSF faculty since 1991.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit scholarly society established by a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and – with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine – provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

Cheng and Rubenstein are among 120 new members elected to the Academy in 2020, bringing the total number of active members to 2,403. They will be formally inducted into the Academy at the 2021 NAS Annual Meeting.

More details about the 2020 class of National Academy Members can be found on the Academy’s website.