Oct. 9, 1997
Vol. 17, No. 2

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    Two of 20 Packard Fellows are University researchers

    Award recognizes most promising researchers in U.S. Two University scientific researchers have each been awarded five-year fellowships worth $500,000 from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Only 20 Packard Fellowships are awarded each year, and rarely is more than one awarded to a single institution. Chicago is the only campus in the country with two winners this year.

    The award recognizes Daphne Preuss, Assistant Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, and Alex Eskin, Assistant Professor in Mathematics, as two of the "most promising science and engineering researchers at universities in the United States."

    Chicago faculty members have received Packard Fellowships in each of the last nine years -- every year the fellowship has been awarded except one -- and 11 current or past fellows teach at the University.

    Preuss, Assistant Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, studies the genetics and biochemistry of how plant cells interact and communicate with other cells, and how plants transmit their genes through fertilization and reproduction. She uses a small, inconspicuous weed, Arabidopsis thaliana, as an experimental model.

    The recent discovery of a rare Arabidopsis mutant provided Preuss with an opportunity to investigate one of the fundamental processes of life: how cells regulate chromosome duplication, pairing and separation during cell division. Previous studies have been unable to analyze in a single organism both the DNA sequences and the cell structure of centromeres, which play an important role in the separation of DNA strands.

    Preuss and colleagues have already begun to compile genetic maps of the centromeres of the five Arabidopsis chromosomes. The Packard award will allow them to analyze the relationship between the centromeres' DNA sequence and structure, how these crucial forms govern chromosome behavior and how they regulate recombination -- the shuffling of individual genes or chromosome segments that enhances the diversity of sexual reproduction. The project could also have a considerable impact on the genetic engineering of agricultural plants.

    Preuss received her B.S. from the University of Denver in 1985 and her Ph.D. from MIT in 1990. She was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford until 1995, when she joined the Chicago faculty. In 1997 she was selected as one of 15 Searle Scholars: a highly competitive, $180,000 three-year award for beginning researchers with unusual promise.

    Eskin, Assistant Professor in Mathematics, has been involved in using techniques of ergodic theory -- which originally derives from statistical mechanics -- and lie groups, the study of symmetries in geometry, to answer some basic questions in number theory and group theory.

    He received his B.S. from UCLA in 1986 and studied physics and mathematics at MIT and Stanford before receiving his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton in 1993.

    He was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for a year before coming to Chicago as a Dickson Instructor in Mathematics in 1994. He was named Assistant Professor in 1996.

    Last spring, Eskin received a $35,000 research fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Sloan fellowships are awarded to young scientists and economists in the United States and Canada in the early stages of their careers on the basis of their exceptional promise to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.