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Sherie Morrison Rallies AAAS Fellows to Fight for Science

Sherie Morrison
Sherie Morrison

AAAS Fellow Sherie Morrison has made her contribution. Now she’s challenging other fellows to step up.

The UCLA microbiologist and immunology researcher is one of the first AAAS donors to respond to the Fellows Challenge. The philanthropic drive is looking for members of the Association’s elected honorees to contribute $10,000 or more to boost the organization’s ability to speak up for science and evidence-based solutions in public policy.

“I think AAAS is addressing a significant issue, which is the public’s perception of science,” Morrison said. “I think we need to educate people about what science really is, because I think there’s a tremendous amount of misconception.”

AAAS is looking for 20 fellows to give at the five-figure level to help support some of its new programs, said Lauren Seligman, director of individual philanthropy programs.

“It’s a way for them to help us speak up stronger and louder for science in what’s been a challenging few years,” Seligman said. “We’re asking leaders in the science field to help us.”

Morrison’s pioneering work on how antibodies are structured and work has led to advances in how the human immune system can be harnessed to tackle disease. Her current work is drawing a bead on blood cancers.

 “We’re making fusion proteins with interferon hoping them to be successful therapeutics,” she said. The hope is to apply them to treat myeloma, type of a cancer that strikes blood plasma cells, and a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma known as Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia. 

And throughout her career, her work has been underwritten by the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest biomedical research agency. NIH funding has struggled in the past decade of recession and sequestration, and supporters in Congress have had to fend off steep proposed cuts in the agency’s budget in the past two years. 

“NIH and NSF and foundation support are critical for basic research and keeping the United States in the forefront,” Morrison said. “I’m concerned that some of the people in Washington seem to be losing interest in funding basic research.”

Those studies not only “drive the engine of progress,” she said, they’ve brought to life an entire industry – biotechnology.

“It resulted from the funding of basic research that got people going, and now it’s a major economic engine for the country … basic science is where you make the discoveries that hopefully will make the translation to help people,” Morrison said.

Morrison got her start in science with a high-school job washing dishes in a small clinical laboratory owned by her neighbor in Concord, Calif., where she grew up. Her first recognition came when working with lab equipment she built an apparatus that helped separate blood proteins -- an achievement that earned her a winning spot in the Westinghouse Science Talent Contest in 1959.

 “I sort of always knew I wanted to be a scientist,” she said. “Initially I wanted to be an archaeologist. But as I matured into a high school student, I found protein-based studies were more fascinating.”

After earning a PhD at Stanford, Morrison did her post-doctoral research at the University of California and New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and served on the faculty of Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Department of Microbiology for 16 years. Morrison then joined the UCLA faculty in 1988 at a time when the idea of genetic engineering “was cutting-edge and at the forefront,” she said. “Now, it’s routine, and there’s a lot of industry involved in it. I’ve seen the field really evolve and mature.”

She’s also watched the role of women in laboratories evolve significantly as well.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of progress. In my department here at UCLA, many of the most outstanding scientists are women. It really does my heart good to see that happen,” she said.

Morrison has been a AAAS member since 1980 and was elected a fellow in medical sciences in 1997. She and her husband Don, an engineer and longtime management professor at UCLA, are already major donors to that institution: In 2015, the couple donated $10 million to establish a new marketing center. And one of their daughters now sits on the board of a nonprofit that boosts science education in Los Angeles schools.

“I think we all realize that science education is a very important thing, and we should do what we can to further that,” she said. “I think that Rush Holt’s emphasis on trying to move that forward is really an excellent one.”

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