Two Penn State scientists in TIME Magazine's Top 100 Most Influential

May 01, 2009

University Park, Pa. -- Penn State professors Stephan Schuster and Webb Miller have been named among "The World's Most Influential People" by TIME Magazine. The pair joins ranks with other 2009 winners, such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Brad Pitt, Tina Fey and Tiger Woods. The May 11 issue of the magazine describes the "TIME 100" winners and their accomplishments.

Schuster, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and Miller, a professor of biology and of computer science and engineering, are leaders of a team that is the first to report the genome-wide sequence of an extinct animal, the woolly mammoth. They developed a novel approach for gene studies that reads ancient DNA highly efficiently. They also were the first to achieve the successful sequencing of genes from the extinct Tasmanian tiger. Their research has opened the door to the widespread, nondestructive use of museum specimens to learn why mammals become extinct and how extinctions might be prevented.

J. Craig Venter, a scientist who was instrumental in mapping the human genome, wrote for TIME Magazine, "Over the past 15 years, the ability to sequence and analyze DNA has given us a new and clearer understanding of evolutionary events, but even with these advances, we've been limited. Getting the genetic code of species that have become extinct, including some of the ones we most want to know about, has been largely impossible. That's all starting to change, however, thanks to the work of people like biologists Stephan Schuster and Webb Miller."

Miller said he thinks that many people naturally are interested in learning more about how an entire species of mammals can suddenly disappear. "I would sleep easier if I were convinced that the same catastrophe, whatever it was, that caused the extinction of woolly mammoths cannot happen to us," he said.

Schuster said he thinks the public interest is due to the fact that deciphering the DNA from extinct species gives us the unique chance to learn from the past and hopefully learn how to prevent future extinctions. He and Miller are currently working on a "Red and Dead list," in which the dead -- extinct -- species are providing impetus for saving the red -- endangered -- species. By sequencing ancient DNA, the scientists can retrieve information from thousands of years ago and track how long-gone animal populations have changed. "It is like we are sequencing time," Schuster said.

Prior to joining Penn State in 2006, Schuster was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry from 1990 to 1991, and conducted postdoctoral research in biology at the California Institute of Technology from 1991 to 1994. He was a researcher and group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany from 1994 to 2000, and at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology at Tübingen, Germany, from 2000 to 2005. In 2002, he was a lecturer at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany. Schuster received diploma degrees in chemistry from the Technical University of Munich, Germany in 1982 and from the University of Konstanz, also in Germany, in 1987. He earned his doctoral degree at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in 1990.

Miller began his career as an assistant professor of computer science at Penn State in 1969. In 1977, he became an associate professor of mathematics at the University of California at Santa Barbara and, in 1979, he was promoted to professor. In 1981, he took a position as a professor of computer science at the University of Arizona before returning to Penn State as a professor of computer science in 1985. In 2004, he obtained a joint professorial position in the Penn State Department of Biology. Miller earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics at Whitman College and master's and doctoral degrees in mathematics at the University of Washington.

More information about the honor, as well as a list of other winners, is on the Web at,28804,1894410_1893209_1893471,00.html.

  • Penn State University genomicists Webb Miller and Stephan C. Schuster

    IMAGE: Lynn Tomsho
Last Updated November 18, 2010