Michael Summers, HIV researcher and mentor, elected to National Academy of Sciences

Michael Summers, Robert E. Meyerhoff Chair for Excellence in Research and Mentoring and University Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has been elected to membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Summers is one of only 84 new members and 21 foreign associates from 14 countries elected this year. Membership is one of the highest honors that a researcher can receive.

Summers’ election is a major milestone for UMBC as the university approaches its 50th anniversary, one that acknowledges Summers’ exceptional contributions to the scientific community and UMBC’s stature as a nationally and internationally recognized research university. This honor also recognizes Summers’ leadership in demonstrating what an inclusive university community committed to both teaching and research can achieve.

“For the Academy to recognize someone who tries to do quality research, but does it in an environment that is inclusive and involves undergraduates makes it so much more special to me,” said Summers. “I feel like it’s a recognition to all of us. There’s no way I’d be in this position if it weren’t for the support of the UMBC community, and especially the students who have worked in my lab, who made the discoveries that made this all possible. It really is a cumulative effort.”

Summers, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1994, focuses on HIV-1, the retrovirus that causes AIDS. His lab’s groundbreaking work has determined the 3D structure of several components of the HIV-1 retrovirus using an imaging technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.

“Mike’s spent the last 30 years studying the structure of HIV by developing and using revolutionary NMR methods,” says Zeev Rosenzweig, professor and chair of chemistry and biochemistry at UMBC. “Undoubtedly, these contributions have led to increased understanding of HIV.”

Now Summers’ lab seeks to learn more about how components of the virus interact with each other and other parts of the cell, and how those interactions change when a virus matures to an infectious state. “We’ve developed new ways of inhibiting the virus, providing important insights into how the virus functions and into how new drugs could potentially be developed,” says Summers.

Summers is also known for his deep commitment to training the next generation of leading scientists, from high school through postdoctoral levels. He has received mentoring awards from the White House, AAAS, and many others. Many of his UMBC undergraduates have had the uncommon opportunity to publish their work in high-profile, peer-reviewed journals.

Because of Summers’ mentorship and advocacy, “hundreds of scientists from underrepresented groups completed their degrees at UMBC and other academic institutions and medical schools all over the United States,” says Rosenzweig, “and now they hold leadership positions in academia, government, industry, and other sectors.”

Summers also serves the university beyond research and teaching as program director of grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He also represents the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars Program—described in Science as the “gold standard for providing a path into academic research” for students from underrepresented groups—to constituents beyond our campus.

“He represents the Meyerhoff program so effectively to the world, demonstrating through his deeds and time that students from all backgrounds can make huge contributions to science if they have the perseverance, determination, and support to succeed,” says David Asai, senior director of science education at HHMI.

Summers has recently been involved in developing a collaborative partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Pennsylvania State University to adapt UMBC’s Meyerhoff program at those schools, through $7.75 million in support from HHMI. “This work requires hard work, patience, and the ability to navigate around unforeseen barriers,” says Asai.

“Michael Summers represents the best of UMBC,” says President Freeman Hrabowski. “He’s a great researcher, a great teacher, and an amazing human being. We are so proud to call him a member of our community.

Image: Michael Summers with students and a 3D model of a virus. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.