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Kirschner and King named University Professors

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Gary King and Marc Kirschner both work ‘on the frontiers of knowledge’

Two faculty members have been named University Professors, Harvard’s highest professorial distinction.

The new appointees are Gary King, the David Florence Professor of Government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and Marc W. Kirschner, the Carl W. Walter Professor of Systems Biology and chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

The first University Professorships were created in 1935 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, who intended these chairs to be for “individuals of distinction … working on the frontiers of knowledge, and in such a way as to cross the conventional boundaries of the specialties.”

The new appointments bring the number of University Professors to 22.

“Marc Kirschner and Gary King are distinguished leaders in their fields, known for their intellectual rigor, their breadth of influence, and their eagerness to venture across disciplinary borders,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “I am pleased to welcome them to the ranks of our University Professors.”

King is a highly influential scholar of empirical methods for social science research. He assumes the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professorship, previously held by the acclaimed political scientist Samuel Huntington, who died last December.

“I am tremendously grateful to President Faust for this spectacular honor,” said King, “and to my students, colleagues, and staff for teaching me so much over the years and making this day possible.”

His work has influenced how data are used to study voting behavior, mortality rates, international conflict, experimental design, survey research, Supreme Court decision making, redistricting, and automated ways of understanding information in unstructured text.

King’s scholarship is read by a wide range of experts, including those in political science and other social sciences, public policy, law, health research, psychology, and statistics.

“Cross-field collaboration remains the best hope for solving society’s most complex problems,” said King. “I look forward to taking advantage of this extraordinary opportunity with people all over the University for many, many years to come.”

Kirschner, an internationally recognized leader in the emergent field of systems biology, assumes the John Franklin Enders University Professorship. It was previously held by Nobel laureate neurobiologist David Hubel of HMS, who is now emeritus.

“I am thrilled and honored,” said Kirschner. “Local recognition is in many ways more significant than international recognition. I am especially pleased to know that this appointment reflects more than simple scholarly accomplishment but contributions to education and the culture of this great University.”

In 2003, he became the founding chair of the HMS Department of Systems Biology. For the decade before that, Kirschner served as founding chair of the HMS Department of Cell Biology.

His work investigates many areas of modern cell biology, including “how cells divide, how they generate their shape, and how embryos develop,” he said.

Kirschner’s laboratory is also studying the frog embryo as a model system of cell development, watching how it orchestrates numerous signals to create a final, complex organism.

Understanding cell morphogenesis is vital to understanding normal cell development and cell regeneration. It also sheds light on cancer, a disease state that is marked on the cellular level by mutations in biochemical pathways.

Kirschner is also a pioneer in studying the evolutionary origins of the vertebrate body plan, and in particular the origins of the chordate nervous system. (Chordates are animals with backbones, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.)

His specialty, systems biology, is eclectic and collaborative. It draws on an array of disciplines, including biology, computer science, applied mathematics, physics, and engineering.

“My recent efforts to encompass more broadly the physics and dynamics of living systems and to inquire into the ways organisms generate variation in evolution has brought me close to colleagues in FAS and engineering, as well as medicine,” said Kirschner. “The ease of crossing scientific boundaries at Harvard is a tribute to the willingness to experiment that I have found here among my colleagues.”

The Systems Biology Department, with its cross-University graduate program, he added, “has created something that causes us to rethink how we should study biology, medicine, and natural sciences in the years ahead.”

Harvard’s newest University Professors both acquired their academic foundations largely at public universities.

King – who is now director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science – earned his bachelor’s degree in 1980 at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a Ph.D. in 1984 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Kirschner is a 1966 graduate of Northwestern University, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of California in 1971.

King was an assistant professor of politics at New York University from 1984 to 1987 before joining the Harvard faculty as associate professor of government. He became John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in 1989, professor of government in 1990, and David Florence Professor of Government in 2002.

King’s students sometimes discover an odd and oblique influence on his academic and teaching career: Being a professional magician.

Until his first year of college, he worked at clubs, parties, and on stage doing magic, escapes, and juggling.

Four years later King was a teaching fellow in graduate school, standing in front of his first audience of students. “I recognized the feeling immediately,” he said. “It was identical to the feeling of performing as a magician – although students ask more questions when you pull things out of your hat.”

Today, King said, “it’s the same thrill I get every time I walk into the classroom.”

Though Kirschner was never a professional magician, he pointed to the unusual start of his science career. His first research job after college was working for the Toni-Gillette Corp. on hair straighteners.

“I actually learned a lot about protein chemistry,” he said, “and I avidly read everything I could in the International Journal of Sheep and Wool Science.”

The company asked him to stay on, but Kirschner elected to pursue a Ph.D. “I will never know what I could have accomplished in the hair products industry,” he said, “but the truth is I never regretted my decision to pursue fundamental biology.”

Kirschner taught at Princeton University from 1972 to 1978, and was professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, for 15 years before coming to HMS in 1993 as the Carl W. Walter Professor and Chair of Cell Biology.

Both of Harvard’s newest University Professors have behind them a trail of honors.

King is one of the most highly cited political scientists of his generation and is among the most highly cited across the social sciences. This year, an article he co-wrote on causal inference with two of his students was named the annual “New Hot Paper” from Thomson Reuters ScienceWatch.

In 2008, ScienceWatch named another study of King’s the year’s “Fast Breaking Paper” – the one with the largest increase in citations among the top 1 percent of cited papers.

King developed the standards used in most U.S. courts for fairness in legislative redistricting, and the statistical methods used in these cases to detect partisan gerrymandering.

His method for ascertaining individual behavior from group-level data is routinely used to decide on the applicability of the Voting Rights Act.

King has also created widely applied statistical methods for achieving cross-cultural comparability in survey research. His evaluation of the Mexican universal health insurance program included what is, to date, the largest randomized health policy experiment.

Last year, Harvard patented and licensed some of his text analysis methods to Crimson Hexagon, a Cambridge startup company.

King’s statistical methods and software are used extensively in academia, government, consulting, and private industry.

Kirschner’s numerous honors include Carnegie Mellon University’s Dickson Prize for his outstanding contributions to science; the E.B. Wilson Medal, the American Society of Cell Biology’s highest scientific honor; the William C. Rose Award, presented by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; and the Gairdner Foundation’s International Award “for his pioneering work in the understanding of the structure, function and dynamics of microtubules.”

Kirschner has published nearly 300 articles in scientific journals. He is the co-author, with John Gerhart, of “Cells, Embryos, and Evolution” (1997) and “The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma” (2005).

King developed 15 open-source software packages and is the author of 120 journal articles. He has written or edited eight books, including this year’s “The Future of Political Science: 100 Perspectives” and “Demographic Forecasting.”

He has served on the editorial boards for 23 journals and other publications, a disciplinary sweep that is a mark of King’s wide influence. His editorial duties have touched on – in part – conflict resolution, public opinion, information technology, public health, and sociological methods.

King’s publications, software, and teaching innovations have been recognized with more than 30 “best-of” prizes, awards, and honors.

His research has been supported by – among other organizations – the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the National Institute on Aging, and the Global Forum for Health Research.

Both of the new University Professors have performed academic service outside the classroom and laboratory.

King has been on the Faculty Council of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the FAS Standing Committee on Information Technology, the FAS Resources Committee, the Visiting Committee to the Harvard School of Public Health, the FAS Priorities Committee, and the University-wide Social Science Planning Committee.

He teaches courses on quantitative research methods, applied statistics, and strategies for political inquiry.

King is also past president of the Society for Political Methodology and past vice president of the American Political Science Association.

He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a visiting fellow at Oxford, and a senior science adviser to the World Health Organization.

King is also an elected fellow of the American Statistical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society for Political Methodology, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Kirschner has been elected as a foreign member of both the Royal Society of London and the Academia Europaea; he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and he has served on the Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Institutes of Health and as president of the American Society for Cell Biology.

He helped found, and for some time chaired, the Public Policy Committee of the American Society of Cell Biology, an active and influential science advocacy committee.

Kirschner was also instrumental in founding the Biological and Biomedical Sciences graduate program at HMS, an interdisciplinary School-wide training program. He also helped found the cross-School Ph.D. program in systems biology, which includes faculty from HMS, FAS, and Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

He also helped create the Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology (now ICCB-Longwood), which brought the tools of high-throughput small molecule screening to Harvard for the first time. It is very widely used by researchers across Boston, and internationally.