Alexander F. Schier, a developmental biologist whose work has illuminated key embryonic molecules that shape masses of undifferentiated cells into complex organisms, has been appointed professor of molecular and cellular biology in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, effective July 1.
Schier comes to Harvard from New York University’s School of Medicine, where he is currently associate professor of cell biology, a founding member of its Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, and an affiliate of its Developmental Genetics Program.
“Professor Schier’s enthusiasm for new ideas, inventive studies of zebrafish genetics, and insightful analysis of his results place him at the forefront of developmental biology,” says William C. Kirby, Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “He is highly regarded as an inspiring educator of undergraduate and graduate students, and his research at the intersection of genetics, developmental biology, and neurobiology will help forge important new connections with the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Harvard Medical School.”
Embryonic development is characterized by the orderly growth of functional and properly arranged organ systems – a systematic process that raises the question of how distinct cell types arise at just the right time and place during development. A series of landmark papers authored by Schier over the past decade have earned him a reputation as a world leader in the study of morphogens, molecules secreted by groups of embryonic cells to induce distinct cellular identities among their neighbors.
Among Schier’s most important research contributions is the development, with Lilianna Solnica-Krezel and Wolfgang Driever, of an embryo-wide genetic screen to identify mutations affecting vertebrate development. The success of this approach was made clear in December 1996, when the journal Development devoted an entire issue to the publication of research papers describing different classes of mutants identified using this screen.
Much of Schier’s work has focused on morphogens affecting body symmetry. While best known for these studies of embryonic development, Schier has recently begun to apply his knowledge of zebrafish development and genetics to the analysis of neural circuitry. He has embarked on two new lines of research in neurobiology, studying the regulation of sleep and the sensing of potentially harmful stimuli.
Schier, 40, received his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in cell biology from the University of Basel in 1988 and 1992, respectively. He was a postdoctoral researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School before joining NYU as an assistant professor in 1996.
Schier serves on the editorial advisory boards of the journals Development, Mechanisms of Development, Developmental Biology, and Developmental Dynamics. His work has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Human Frontiers Science Program, the American Heart Association, and the Swiss National Science Foundation, as well as a McKnight Scholarship for Neuroscience from 1999 to 2002 and an Irma T. Hirschl Career Scientist Award from 2001 to 2005.