Michael Axtell, professor of biology, and Marcos Rigol, professor of physics, have been selected as two of the five recipients of the 2019 Faculty Scholar Medals for Outstanding Achievement for excellence in scholarship, research and the arts. Established in 1980, the award recognizes scholarly or creative excellence represented by a single contribution or a series of contributions around a coherent theme. A committee of peers reviews nominations and selects candidates.
Axtell was awarded the Faculty Scholar Medal in the Life Sciences. His research focuses on the identification and functional characterization of small regulatory RNAs in plants. Unlike messenger RNAs that code for proteins, the role of these noncoding RNAs is to recognize certain target messenger RNAs that are degraded and thus prevented from translation into protein. One role of these small RNAs is to battle viruses by destroying viral messenger RNAs. Plants and animals also use these small RNAs to regulate their own genes.
Axtell’s research looks at the amount of small RNA in a plant or animal, what are their structural requirements for targeted selection, how do they evolve and what is their role in plant development and pathogenesis.
“Axtell is unquestionably one of the foremost international experts on plant RNA biology and is a creative and innovative scientist who played an important role in identifying, annotating and functionally characterizing small RNAs and the genes they regulate in a diverse set of plant species,” a nominator said.
Through a series of online resources and high-profile papers, nominators said Axtell’s work made seminal contributions to our understanding and appreciation of the biological functions and importance of small RNA.
His key findings include:
- Describing a rapid computational screening test to determine minimal base pairing requirements for small RNA and the targets that are necessary for the RNA to act and degrade those targets.
- Discovering that some microRNAs are naturally transferred from one plant to another. This mechanism shows how host plants, when attacked by parasitic plants, defend themselves using small RNA “counter punches” to silence genes in the parasitic plant.
“Axtell has rapidly become one of the foremost international leaders in the small RNA field of molecular plant science,” a nominator said. “He has developed enormously useful and already widely adopted online resources that facilitate progress in the plant research community. His discovery of the trans-species microRNA activities has opened up a new understanding of plant parasite relationships that may yield practical benefits to agriculture.”
Axtell is a member of the American Society of Plant Biologists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His research accomplishments have been recognized with the Masatoshi Nei Innovation Prize in Biology from Penn State in 2018, the Dean’s Award in Natural Sciences and Mathematics from Ithaca College in 1998, and a Past Presidents Award from the Phi Kappa Phi honorary society at Ithaca College in 1998. He received a Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2004, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 1998, a Berkeley Fellowship in 1998, and a Barry M. Goldwater Fellowship in 1997.
Axtell joined the faculty at Penn State in August 2006 as an assistant professor and was promoted to associate professor in 2011 and professor in 2016. Prior to this, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Axtell earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Ithaca College in 1998. He earned a doctoral degree in plant biology at the University of California at Berkeley in 2003.
Rigol was awarded the Faculty Scholar Medal in the Physical Sciences. He is a theoretical physicist whose research centers on the understanding of the dynamic behavior of quantum many-body systems, or properties of microscopic systems made of a large number of particles interacting with each other through the laws of quantum mechanics.
One nominator called Rigol “one of the world leaders in the application of numerical methods to study nonequilibrium dynamics of many-body systems.” Rigol’s international impact is noted by the dozens of talks he’s given at universities and international research conferences.
A challenging problem in this field is understanding how isolated complex quantum systems approach equilibrium. In a landmark paper published in 2008, Rigol revealed new insights into the mechanism underlying the thermalization of these systems. That work has been cited more than 1,000 times.
Since joining Penn State in 2013, Rigol has continued to publish influential research.
His work falls into two categories: theoretical advances that push the frontiers of the field by revealing new insights into complex problems in many-body physics and the theoretical interpretation of experiments carried out in some of the world’s leading cold atom laboratories.
Rigol’s key recent findings include advancing understanding of the long time behavior of periodically driven quantum many body systems, and demonstrating the exact description of the steady state of a quenched anisotropic Heisenberg chain that deepened knowledge of quantum integrability.
“Rigol’s scholarship as a theoretical physicist is profound, technically highly sophisticated and highly innovative,” a nominator said. “For example, Rigol has begun to make very important advances in an imaginative approach to the understanding” to a challenging problem on quantum entanglement that began to be studied decades ago at Penn State through an alumnus of Stephen Hawking’s research group.
Rigol is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and currently serves as chair of the society’s Division of Computational Physics. He was a Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 and received the Young Scientist Prize from the International union of Pure and Applied Physics in 2011. He has published more than 80 scientific papers in peer reviewed journals, including Nature, Nature Communications, Physical Review Letters, and Physical Review A and B.
Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State in 2013, Rigol was an assistant then associate professor at Georgetown University from 2008 to 2012. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 2007 to 2008, the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, from 2006 to 2007, and at the University of California, Davis, from 2004 to 2006. He earned a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Stuttgart, Germany, in 2004, and master’s and bachelor’s degrees in nuclear physics from the Institute of Nuclear Sciences and Technology, Havana, Cuba, in 2000 and 1999, respectively.