Obama names WUSTL biologist to his science advisory council

President Obama has appointed Barbara A. Schaal, Ph.D., the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and vice president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

PCAST is an advisory group of 20 of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers who will advise the president and vice president and formulate policy in the many areas where understanding of science, technology and innovation is key to strengthening the nation’s economy and forming policy that works for the American people.

Obama announced the PCAST members during remarks April 27 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Obama is only the fourth president in modern times to address the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This council represents leaders from many scientific disciplines who will bring a diversity of experience and views,” Obama said during the meeting, which Schaal attended. “I will charge PCAST with advising me about national strategies to nurture and sustain a culture of scientific innovation.”

Barbara Schaal


PCAST will be co-chaired by John Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project; and Harold Varmus, president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, former head of the National Institutes of Health and a Nobel laureate.

“Professor Schaal has long been regarded as one of the top plant biologists in the United States,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “As we have benefited from her leadership here at Washington University, our nation will be stronger because of her contributions to this important presidential advisory committee.

“I am grateful for her willingness to serve her country during a time when our elected officials are making critical science and technology policy decisions,” Wrighton said.

“I’m very much looking forward to working with the committee and to addressing some of the challenges such as energy and environment that currently confront the United States,” said Schaal, who also holds a joint position as professor of genetics in the School of Medicine.

Obama’s PCAST includes three Nobel laureates, two university presidents, four MacArthur Prize Fellows, and 14 individuals who are elected members of one or more of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It is a balanced team with members from all across the country, representing a broad array of fields and professional activities in science and technology.

Many of the objectives of the Obama Administration — in the fields of energy, education, health, climate change, environment, security and the economy — can be met only with a strong national effort in science and technology.

Other than the assistant to the president for science and technology, members of PCAST are not regular employees of the government. They are presidential appointees and are not compensated for their service to the executive office of the president.

Schaal was elected the first woman vice president of NAS in 2005 and recently won re-election to the post. Schaal, who served as chair of WUSTL’s Department of Biology from 1993-97, is known for applying molecular genetic techniques to the study of plant evolution.

Her research investigates the evolutionary process within plant populations using a wide variety of techniques, from field observations to quantitative genetics and molecular biology.

Schaal has studied hosts of plant species ranging from oak trees to Mead’s milkweed, a Midwestern prairie plant. Her recent work includes collaborating with students and peers to research the evolutionary genetics of plants in hopes of enriching crops such a rice, the most widely used crop globally.

Born in Berlin, Germany, Schaal grew up in Chicago. She attended the University of Illinois at Chicago and graduated in 1969 with honors in biology. She earned a master’s degree in 1971 and a doctorate in 1974, both from Yale University.

Before joining WUSTL in 1980, she taught at the University of Houston and Ohio State University. In 1999 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an honor that recognized her research investigating the evolutionary process within plant populations.

She currently chairs the Division of Earth and Life Studies and is on the Governing Board of the National Research Council.