Mecham, Morrow-Howell to receive 2012 faculty achievement awards

Robert Mecham, PhD, a pioneering cell biologist, and Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, a leading national scholar in gerontology, will receive Washington University’s 2012 faculty achievement awards, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton announced.

Mecham, the Alumni Endowed Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology, is the recipient of the Carl and Gerty Cori Faculty Achievement Award, and Morrow-Howell, the Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work at the Brown School, is the recipient of the Arthur Holly Compton Faculty Achievement Award.

They will receive their awards and give presentations of their scholarly work during a ceremony in December.

“Both Nancy and Robert are outstanding selections for this year’s faculty achievement awards,” Wrighton says. “Washington University strives to develop new knowledge that will bring great benefit to society. This year’s awardees have done just that – they are accomplished scholars whose teaching and research have changed lives. It is a privilege for us to recognize them with this special honor.”

Robert Mecham


Mecham, who joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1977, focuses most of his research on the extracellular matrix, or the structures between cells that join them together to form tissues and organs.

He became interested in these structures during an undergraduate work-study job, where he remembers watching the amino acid sequence for a protein called elastin emerging from a sequencer.

Elastin plays an important role in the extracellular matrix: it allows tissues to stretch and to return to their normal shape after stretching. Elastin is found throughout the body, but the heart, blood vessels, lungs and skin have the highest elastin levels.

“Understanding how to make new elastic fibers is one of the biggest challenges for treating numerous disease, and for making artificial blood vessels and other artificial tissues,” Mecham says. “Elastin is a complex polymer and we still don’t know how to replace elastin once it is damaged.”

Mecham uses mouse models to adjust or eliminate the activity of elastin and other proteins important to the extracellular matrix. This allows him to investigate the roles these proteins play in tissue function and to model diseases linked to problems in the matrix.

This includes disorders caused by environmental factors, such as heart disease and emphysema, and genetic conditions like Marfan syndrome and supravalvular aortic stenosis, a dangerous disorder that narrows the aorta and restricts blood flow.

Mecham was the first president of the American Society for Matrix Biology from 2001-02. He received the university’s Distinguished Teacher Award in 1993, 1994 and 1995; the Distinguished Mentor Award in 2004; the Outstanding Faculty Member Award in 2006; and the Distinguished Researcher Award in 2008. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mecham has extensive teaching involvement in medical and graduate school courses at the School of Medicine. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah and a doctorate in biochemistry from Boston University. He has two honorary degrees from universities in Europe.

Nancy Morrow-Howell


Morrow-Howell, director of the university’s Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging, has been on the faculty at the Brown School since 1987.
She is widely known for her work on productive and civic engagement of older adults.

In 1998, she organized the first national conference on productive engagement in later life and produced an important book to guide the development of a research agenda on the topic: Productive Aging: Concepts and Challenges, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Since then, she and her colleagues at the Brown School’s Center for Social Development have advanced thinking and research on strategies to maximize participation and enhance outcomes of older adults in work, volunteering, educational and caregiving roles.

Morrow-Howell advises the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) and the American Society on Aging on these topics.

Her work has received international attention as societies across the globe are responding to population aging, and last summer, she organized a second conference on productive engagement of older adults in China.

At the Brown School, Morrow-Howell teaches gerontology courses as well as research methods. She has held many leadership positions, including directing the master’s level gerontology curriculum and chairing the PhD program. She is an active mentor for doctoral students studying issues of an aging society.

Morrow-Howell received both the Washington University Distinguished Faculty Award and the Brown School’s Outstanding Faculty Award. She also serves as the ambassador to the University of Hong Kong for the university’s McDonnell International Scholars Academy.

Outside of the university, Morrow-Howell is a fellow of the GSA, past chair of the Social Research, Policy, and Program section of the GSA, past vice president of the Association for Gerontological Education in Social Work, and is actively involved with the John A. Hartford Geriatric Social Work Initiative.

She recently was awarded the Career Achievement Award from the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work.

Morrow-Howell earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work at the University of Kansas. She earned her doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.