The University Record, May 20, 2002

Two elected to academy of sciences

By Nancy Connell
News and Information Services

The election of two U-M faculty to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was announced April 30. Richard E. Nisbett, a psychologist who is co-director of the University Culture and Cognition program and a senior research scientist at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), and Rowena G. Matthews, the G. Robert Greenberg Distinguished University Professor of Biological Chemistry and senior research scientist in the Biophysics Research Division, were among 72 new members and 15 foreign associates from 12 countries elected to membership, bringing total membership in the NAS to 1,907.

NAS members are elected in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original scientific research. Members of the NAS, a private organization of scientists and engineers, act as official advisers to the federal government on questions involving science and technology. Election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors a scientist can receive.

Early in his career, Nisbett studied the way people perceive the causes of their own behavior. “It turns out that we are often remarkably blind as to why we make the judgments and choices that we do,” he says, “not for motivational reasons necessarily, but just because we don’t have access to the machinery of our minds.” His recent work on reasoning compares East Asians with Westerners, finding that the origin of many cognitive differences lies in the different social structures characteristic of Eastern and Western cultures.

His cultural research has focused on “cultures of honor,” including the Southern and Western United States. Raised in El Paso, Texas, Nisbett notes that his intuitions told him that males from the U.S. South and West were inclined to violence in a variety of situations dealing with protection of reputation and property. His subsequent research culminated in a book co-authored with Dov Cohen, “Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South.” His latest book, “The Geography of Thought: Why We Think the Way We Do,” is forthcoming from the Free Press.

Matthews in her lab (Photo courtesy of U-M Photo Services)
Matthews is a protein chemist who studies the mechanisms of enzymes. Her most recent research focused on an enzyme called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase or MTHFR. This enzyme with the tongue-twisting name catalyzes a critical step in the biochemical chain reaction within cells that converts homocysteine to an essential amino acid called methionine.

Although her original goal was simply to learn more about the biochemistry of the MTHFR enzyme, Matthews’ research turned out to have important and unexpected applications to medicine and public health. Her discovery solved the mystery of how folic acid reduces the amount of a compound called homocysteine, which is associated with an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and birth defects in humans.