Johns Hopkins scientists receive presidential medals


Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Solomon H. Snyder, M.D., and astrophysicist Riccardo Giacconi, Ph.D., have been named recipients of the 2003 National Medal of Science, the United States' top scientific recognition, the White House announced today.

The two will be the seventh and eighth Johns Hopkins faculty members to receive this honor. Giacconi and Snyder will receive the medals in a White House ceremony on Monday, March 14.

"Sol's and Riccardo's careers -- as scientists and as leaders of scientists -- have been nothing short of extraordinary," said William R. Brody, M.D., Ph.D., president of The Johns Hopkins University. "Though one seeks to solve the mysteries of the mind and brain and the other explores the universe, they are really very much alike: They are intensely curious. They are immensely creative. They are relentless in their pursuit of knowledge and truth. We are proud to be their colleagues."

Summaries of the work of these scientists are below.


Sol Snyder's research accomplishments range from the discovery of opiate receptors in the brain -- work for which he shared the prestigious Albert Lasker Award in 1978 -- to proof that gases can serve as neural messengers.

Many advances in molecular neuroscience have stemmed from Snyder's identification of receptors for neurotransmitters and drugs, which led to clarification of how psychotropic agents act in the brain. He pioneered the labeling of receptors by a process called reversible ligand binding, which led to his and colleagues' discovery of the opiate receptor, and he extended the technique to identify numerous other neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. In characterizing each new group of receptors, he also clarified the actions of major neuroactive drugs.

Snyder's techniques and discoveries have helped lead to rational design of new drugs to treat psychiatric and other diseases based on the rapid screening of large numbers of candidate drugs, advances made possible by his receptor binding technology. In addition, Snyder's identification of novel neurotransmitters, such as the gases nitric oxide and carbon monoxide and D-amino acids such as D-serine, has radically reshaped concepts of neurotransmission.

"This honor recognizes Sol as a pioneer in brain sciences research and celebrates his many creative, novel experimental approaches and numerous ground-breaking discoveries," said Chi Dang, M.D., Ph.D., vice dean for research at the School of Medicine. "Because of both his research and his training of many of biomedical sciences' current and future leaders, Sol's impact extends well beyond neuroscience. I am extremely happy for Sol, and I join the Hopkins community in congratulating him and in celebrating this joyous event."

Snyder continues searching for new neurotransmitters and receptors, as well as increasing understanding of those he and his colleagues have discovered throughout the years.

"I am grateful that the work of my students over the past 40 years has received recognition," said Snyder. "I feel honored to be included among other distinguished neuroscientists who have also received the award, especially my friend and colleague Vernon Mountcastle."

Snyder was born in 1938 in Washington, D.C., where he was also educated. In 1955, he entered Georgetown in a premedical program. After being admitted to Georgetown Medical School in 1958 without a bachelor's degree, Snyder earned an M.D. in 1962 at age 23.

From 1963 to 1965, Snyder was a research associate at the National Institute of Mental Health in the laboratory of Julius Axelrod, a 1970 Nobel laureate for whom he had worked briefly prior to entering medical school. In 1965, Snyder came to Johns Hopkins as a resident in psychiatry, and he was made an assistant professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics the following year. In 1970, by age 31, he had risen to full professor in both departments.

In 1980, Snyder was appointed the first University Distinguished Service Professor of Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Psychiatry and director of the Department of Neuroscience, positions he still holds today. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Philosophical Society. He is the recipient of six honorary doctorates and numerous awards.


Co-recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in physics, Riccardo Giacconi is considered the father of astronomy research that exploits the X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. His research opened a new window on scientific understanding of the universe, from its evolution to its component black holes, neutron stars, galaxy clusters and quasars.

More than 40 years ago, Giacconi led the team that discovered the faint, uniform phenomenon known as the cosmic X-ray background. Since then, his work has helped define that background and determine its origin. A long-time leader in astrophysics, Giacconi has been responsible -- in a series of administrative posts -- for the construction and operation of some of the world's most important astronomical observatories. One of those posts brought him to Johns Hopkins in 1981.

"The National Medal of Science is our country's highest recognition of scientific achievement. Through his pioneering work in astronomy and his leadership of the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Giacconi has advanced our science, our university, our city and our country," said Jonathan Bagger, physics and astronomy professor and department chair at Johns Hopkins. "I am delighted that his many contributions are being honored by President Bush."

"Riccardo is always a pleasure to work with," added Colin Norman, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins and a collaborator of Giacconi's. "He holds fast to the highest possible levels of scientific and technical truth. He possesses profound physical insight, and his strategic understanding into where astronomy and astrophysics is going and the path, in fact, it should be taking is unmatched in the field."

Giacconi was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1931, but spent most of his life prior to 1956 in Milan. He earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Milan in 1954, and was an assistant professor there until he left for the United States in 1956. After two years at the Indiana University and a year at Princeton University, Giacconi joined American Science and Engineering (AS&E) to launch a space science program for the small corporation. He remained with AS&E until 1973, when he joined nearby Harvard University.

From 1981 to 1992, Giacconi was founding director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the science headquarters for the Hubble Space Telescope on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. From 1981 to 1997, he was a professor in physics and astronomy at the University. He became a research professor in 1998 and maintained his personal research program here when he became president of Associated Universities Inc., the consortium that co-administers the National Radio Astronomy Observatory with the National Science Foundation. He retired from AUI late last year, and was named University Professor at Johns Hopkins in October 2004.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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