Convocation 2007

fields image
Stanley Fields

Vollum Award Citation
for Stanley Fields

Presented by Janis Shampay, professor of biology

The Howard Vollum Award for Science and Technology was created and first presented by Reed College in 1975. This award recognizes and celebrates the exceptional achievement of one or more members of the scientific and technical community of the Northwest. The name of the award is a tribute to the late Howard Vollum, one of the nation's great innovators and technologists, Reed physics alumnus, long-time trustee, and lifelong friend of Reed College.

Each year the president and the Board of Trustees, acting on the recommendation of the Division of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, select a recipient who demonstrates the perseverance, fresh approach to problems and solutions, and imagination that characterized Howard Vollum's career.

On behalf of the college, I am pleased to cite Stanley Fields as this year's Vollum Award winner.

Dr. Fields holds the positions of Professor of Genome Sciences, Professor of Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle.  Fields is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.  Like the traits prized for the Vollum Award, creativity, risk-taking, exploration of unproven avenues, and an embrace of the unknown mark HHMI appointees.  Fields’ research career is emblematic of these traits, and of his unquenchable curiosity. 
As Fields himself says, "I've always liked doing puzzles, even as a kid.  As a scientist, I get a chance to play around and solve puzzles for my job."

The late Ira Herskowitz introduced Fields to the powerful genetics of a 'simple' one-celled organism:  baker's yeast.  Fields soon made his first major advance in the form of the yeast two-hybrid system, which detects interactions between two different proteins, the functional products of genetic instructions.  This technology is not limited to the analysis of native yeast proteins, because as a living test tube, yeast can be coaxed to express proteins from any species. 

At the time the complete DNA sequence of the yeast genome was reported, Fields was already thinking about *genome-wide* comparisons by analyzing interactions among the 55 proteins encoded by a small bacterial virus.  Soon he and his colleagues published the first analysis of all possible yeast protein interactions, which involves not 55 but 6,000 proteins.

The completion of the human genome project (as well as the sequencing of many model organism genomes) has ushered in the "post-genomic era" in which biologists can ask questions not of just one gene, but thousands, or even all genes – the entire system.  If you are most interested in the functional products of all genes, the proteome, the challenges are even more complex, because a single gene can encode multiple protein versions, and proteins themselves can be further modified. "All of these possibilities result in a proteome estimated to be an order of magnitude more complex than the genome," wrote Fields in an article in the prestigious journal Science.  Yet almost weekly, the complete genomic DNA sequence is reported from yet another species, sequence that allows the prediction of thousands of protein products with virtually nothing known about what they actually do in the cell.  When the yeast genome was first sequenced, 60% of the deduced proteins had unknown function–despite yeast having been a major target of genetic research for decades.

Stanley Fields has developed and applied technologies to identify protein function, modifying his approaches to allow high-throughput analyses of thousands of proteins.  He and his collaborators have ridden the wave of computational improvements to analyze entire networks of protein interactions, putting the "function" into "functional genomics."  Association with a particular metabolic pathway or subcellular compartment provides strong clues to a protein's function.  As Melanie Mayer and Phil Hieter wrote in Nature Biotechnology, "These connections represent a gold mine for formulating and experimentally testing specific hypotheses about gene function."  Fields has analyzed the protein interaction networks of other organisms, such as the malaria parasite.  High-throughput technologies have been used to identify genes implicated in yeast life span, and though there may be some obvious differences between yeast and humans, they share all major metabolic pathways.

Fields runs a large and vibrant lab at the University of Washington, pursuing novel technologies utilizing DNA, RNA, proteins, and metabolites.  He attracts students and postdocs from around the world who come for the science and stay for the mentoring he provides.  As one of his postdocs says, "He lets us find our niche by creating a lab environment that helps each of us flourish in our own way."  Fields points to the outstanding scientific environment at University of Washington, and says that "microbrews, good wine, and great salmon don't hurt either."

Fields came to the attention of the Vollum Award committee with a strong recommendation from Edwin Krebs, Nobel Prize-winning chemist and 1996 Vollum Award recipient, who describes Fields as “Nobel caliber.”  Stanley Fields has repeatedly demonstrated his ability and willingness to take on the questions generated in the post-genomic era, by not only facing, but embracing, biological complexity. As Fields says, "Perhaps students beginning their studies now will enter a discipline in which these experimental and computational tools will constitute not 'systems biology' but simply 'biology.'"

On behalf of the Division of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, I am delighted to congratulate Stanley Fields as recipient of the 2007 Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology.