Celebrating Mark Nelson’s election to the National Academy of Sciences

On a lunchtime run, colleagues and researchers Mark Nelson and David Warshaw head down Spear Street. It’s a ritual the pair has kept nearly every work day since 1995. It’s more than just a daily workout. It’s a grant-writing workshop, staffing discussion, and science seminar. And as anyone who has run in Burlington knows, it’s a whole lot of hills. 

But no hill compares to the one Nelson just climbed. On April 30, Mark Nelson, chair of Pharmacology and a University Distinguished Professor, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the greatest honors a scientist can achieve.

It’s the latest in a string of honors he’s received over his career – from the National Institutes of Health, the American Society for Pharmacology, and the American Physiological Society, among others. He’s internationally recognized for his contributions to our understanding of the control of blood flow within the brain.  

How do blood vessels ensure the brain’s hard-working neurons get the nutrients they need? One area of Nelson’s focus is the role calcium plays in the complex communication happening among neurons, smooth muscle cells, and other cells.

The “information currency,” Nelson says, of these cells is calcium. “If we can understand what it’s doing, we’ll be able to come up with some new ideas for treatments,” of vascular diseases like strokes and dementia.

Throughout his career, he’s mentored dozens of scholars and researchers. Among them are Osama Harraz, who has worked as a postdoctoral associate in Nelson’s lab for four years and counts himself among Nelson’s grateful trainees, noting Nelson’s continued passion for the work and the “unparalleled scientific environment” in his lab. “He is amazed by how blood vessels deliver what the brain needs for a lifetime,” Harraz says. “One discovery after another, this excitement never fades away, it increases.”

His running and research counterpart David Warshaw, chair of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, was a champion of his election to the National Academy of Science. Candidates must be nominated by an existing society member, and Warshaw’s contact with several members helped lead to Nelson’s election. 

“Mark's discoveries have set the investigative direction for researchers around the world," says Warshaw, a collaborator with Nelson on research to better understand the smooth muscle cells that operate without conscious control in the brain and the heart. "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.”