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2004 Philip Hauge Abelson Prize Recipient

2004 Award Recipients

AAAS Philip Hauge Abelson Prize


Maxine Singer

For her countless roles in service to science and its potential for improving human welfare, AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific society, today named Maxine Frank Singer, president emeritus of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, to receive the prestigious 2004 Philip Hauge Abelson Prize.

Established in 1985, the Abelson Prize is awarded annually to a public servant, in recognition of sustained, exceptional contributions to advancing science, or to a scientist whose career has been distinguished by scientific achievements as well as other notable services to the scientific community. The prize was inspired by Philip Hauge Abelson, an icon in the scientific community, who served as long-time senior adviser to AAAS and editor of the association’s journal, Science. Abelson, who also served as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, died 1 August 2004, following more than 60 years of service to science and society.

Singer’s selection by the AAAS Board of Directors as the twentieth recipient of the Abelson Prize was particularly significant, said Alan I. Leshner, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of Science. “As we continue to reflect upon Dr. Abelson’s legacy, it is particularly meaningful to honor Dr. Singer,” Leshner said. “In addition to her many impressive scientific accomplishments, her tireless advocacy for biomedical research and profound contributions to society have exemplified the values that Dr. Abelson also championed throughout his lifetime.”

Even while pursuing new insights in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology, Singer has worked to improve science education for all students and to help refine American science policy, said Albert H. Teich, director of Science and Policy at AAAS. “Dr. Singer has been especially influential in promoting consideration of the social, moral or ethical implications of scientific advancement,” Teich noted. “By consistently promoting scientific responsibility, she has worked to enhance public trust in the scientific enterprise, and in scientist-citizens.”

Singer—who in 1992 received the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor bestowed by the president of the United States—earned her undergraduate degree with high honors from Swarthmore in 1952, then received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Yale University in 1957. Her professional career began in 1956 with a postdoctoral fellowship at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), where she received a staff appointment two years later. From 1980 until 1987, Singer served as chief of the Laboratory of Biochemistry for the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

As President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1988 until 2002, Singer led the biologists, astronomers, and earth scientists of the Institution’s six scientific departments. While guiding the Institution in its scientific pursuits and postgraduate education, Singer also directed a $50 million capital campaign that financed major renovations at Carnegie campuses, as well as Carnegie’s share in the building of two giant, 6.5-meter optical telescopes dubbed Project Magellan. Today, she continues to serve the NCI as scientist emeritus.

Singer’s own scientific investigations have ranged from chromatin structure, to the structure and evolution of defective viruses, to enzymes that work on DNA and its complementary molecule, RNA. In the early 1960s, she investigated the genetic code with her NIH colleague, Marshall Nirenberg. More recently, she has studied a large family of repeated DNA sequences called LINES, which are interspersed many times throughout mammalian DNA. With her co-workers, Singer has focused in particular on the LINE-1 sequence that is repeated thousands of times in human DNA, concluding that LINE-1 is a jumping gene capable of insertion to new places on chromosomal DNA. Elsewhere, scientists later found that LINE-1 insertions into a gene related to blood clotting are associated with hemophilia. Singer and her colleagues have continued to concentrate on explaining the precise mechanism of LINE-1 transposition, which may have broad significance for understanding genetic diseases.

Her lifelong efforts to promote responsible science first began to take shape in 1967, when she prepared a Science article that interpreted early efforts by Arthur Kornberg and colleagues to synthesize biologically active DNA in vitro. She predicted that the research, now seen as an early step toward recombinant DNA technology and gene therapy, would “bring closer the day when the ability to manipulate genetic material can be used for improving the life of all humans.”

In 1973, Singer co-chaired a Gordon conference, where she focused on helping to address early concerns about potential risks of recombinant DNA technology. She was then an organizer of the famous 1975 Asilomar conference, and was among five signers of the summary statement of the Asilomar report, which set forth guidelines for recombinant DNA research. By recommending resumption of recombinant DNA research, but under very cautious safeguards, the Asilomar report established a framework for the responsible conduct of research and ensured the gradual removal of restrictions as understanding of the technology grew in subsequent years.

Singer also has sought to address the decline of U.S. mathematics and science education, scientific literacy within the general population, and the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the sciences. At Carnegie, for example, Singer introduced “First Light,” a project that makes it possible for third, fourth and fifth graders to attend an imaginative Saturday science school. In 1994, Singer further initiated the Carnegie Academy for Science Education, designed to bring the innovative techniques of First Light to the city’s public elementary-school teachers, through six-week summer institutes and continuing associations during the school year.

Also in the education realm, Singer and Paul Berg wrote the textbook, “Genes & Genomes”, which is now in use by students of molecular genetics worldwide. A subsequent book, “Dealing with Genes,” was intended to acquaint a wider readership with modern genetics.

Singer has since 1978 served as a member of the Board of Governors and Scientific Advisory Council of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel. She was chairman of the editorial board of theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from 1985 until 1988. She currently is a member of The Human Genome Organization, and is a board member of Perlegen Sciences Inc. She was a trustee of Yale (University) Corporation, 1975-1990, and director of the Whitehead Institute, 1985-1994. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979 and to membership in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1986.

Her several awards for public service include the National Medal of Science, as well as the 1982 AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, which she shared with Paul Berg and Norton Zinder, and the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, bestowed in January 1988 by the late President Ronald Reagan. The recipient of numerous honorary degrees, Singer is married to Daniel Morris Singer, with whom she has four grown children.

Please click here for a list of past recipients.