‘One Discovery after Another’ – Mark Nelson’s Journey to the National Academy of Sciences

May 1, 2019 by Jennifer Nachbur

Nearly 40 years of research have not diminished the excitement Mark Nelson experiences when studying how blood vessels work to ensure the brain’s hard-working neurons get the nutrients they need. That amazement and the relentless pursuit of knowledge and answers has inspired Nelson, a University Distinguished Professor and chair of pharmacology at the University of Vermont, to many groundbreaking discoveries.  

On April 30, Nelson's achievements in original research were recognized with his election to membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS, founded in 1863, is a private, nonprofit organization of the nation's leading researchers. According to its website, its members are "elected by peers in recognition of distinguished achievement in their respective fields."

“Election to the National Academy of Sciences is among the greatest honors that a biomedical researcher can receive,” said UVM Larner College of Medicine Dean Richard L. Page, M.D. “Dr. Nelson richly deserves this recognition, based on a body of work that has provided major discoveries in the field of blood flow regulation to the brain. The Larner College of Medicine and the entire UVM community are proud to celebrate his outstanding accomplishment.”

A member of the UVM faculty since 1986, Nelson is internationally recognized for his research on the molecular mechanisms and cellular communication involved in blood flow, particularly in the brain’s blood vessels. While he enjoys an international reputation as a great scientist, he is equally recognized for creating an “unparalleled scientific environment” as a mentor to the next generation of great scientists.

“He is a living example of what Alhazen [the Arab mathematician and physicist] said a millennium ago: ‘Whosoever studies works of science must, if he wants to find the truth, transform himself into a critic of everything he reads,’” says Osama Harraz, Ph.D., who has worked as a postdoctoral associate in Nelson’s lab for four years and counts himself among Nelson’s grateful trainees. “He is amazed by how blood vessels deliver what the brain needs for a lifetime; one discovery after another, this excitement never fades away, it increases. During my time here in Vermont, I have enjoyed an unparalleled scientific environment. Beyond the science, Mark’s continuous and unconditional support of his trainees and colleagues is inspiring."

A Fellow of both the American Heart Association and the Biophysical Society, Nelson has received an Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and an NIH MERIT award.

His extensive research contributions have been recognized with more 250 peer-reviewed publications and more than 360 invited lectureships since 2000, including the Paul M. Vanhoutte Lectureship in Vascular Pharmacology by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. In addition, he is the recipient of the Annual Reviews Award for Scientific Reviewing from the American Physiological Society, and University Scholar honors from UVM.

NAS membership for Nelson was spurred on by his UVM colleague, Professor and Chair of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics David Warshaw. Warshaw and Nelson have been friends and daily running partners for years. And they have long collaborated on research involving the smooth muscle cells that work without conscious control in the brain and the heart.

“Mark's discoveries have set the investigative direction for researchers around the world," says Warshaw.  "His sustained level of top-flight science is evidenced by over 30,000 citations of his work in the most prestigious journals. As a friend and colleague, it was obvious that his international reputation and science was worthy of the National Academy of Sciences.” NAS candidates must be nominated by an existing society member, and Warshaw's contact with several NAS members ultimately helped lead to Nelson’s nomination, a fact Nelson noted at an impromptu lunchtime celebration of the announcement at the Larner College of Medicine on May 1.

At about the same time the UVM community was applauding Nelson's accomplishment, Suresh Garimella, who will become the University’s 27th president in July, sent his good wishes via Twitter: “Mark, you honor [UVM], you honor your profession, and you honor all your colleagues and research collaborators and students with this highest of recognitions. Bravo!”

View the list of members elected to the National Academy of Sciences on April 30, 2019 here.