William “Bil” Clemons, an alumnus of Virginia Tech’s biochemistry department, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest professional honors that can be bestowed upon a scientist.

Members of the National Academy of Sciences serve pro bono as advisors to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine. New members are selected based on their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

“I was shocked when I was notified that I’d been elected to the national academy. It is truly an honor and one that I was humbled to accept,” Clemons said. “The accomplishment highlights the fortunate support I’ve had throughout my career going back to my days as a biochem undergrad at Virginia Tech.”

Clemons uses the tools of biochemistry to explore the molecular building blocks of life. He and his team of structural biologists at the California Institute of Technology work on problems related to how membrane proteins are made and inserted into cell membranes and focus on the chemistry of enzymes that catalyze the transfer of sugars onto lipids. The work completed in the Clemons Lab is critical to the development of novel therapeutics.

Clemons obtained his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Virginia Tech in 1995 and was College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient for 2017-18. He started his research career in the lab of Walter Niehaus, professor emeritus of biochemistry. In Niehaus’s lab, Clemons worked with enzymes from Cryptococcus, an invasive fungus transmitted through the inhalation of spores that causes the infection cryptococcosis. He attributes the fundamental training he received in the biochemistry undergraduate program to his readiness for graduate school.

In 2000, Clemons received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Utah while working jointly with the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. His graduate work contributed to solving the atomic structure of the ribosome with his dissertation advisor, 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry Venki Ramakrishnan.

An organism's vital functions are managed by large, complex protein molecules produced in cells' ribosomes. There, genetic information from messenger RNA is translated into chains of amino acids that then build proteins. Using a method known as X-ray crystallography, Ramakrishnan, Clemons, and other researchers were able to map the structure of ribosomes. Among other applications, this information has been useful for the production of antibiotics.

Clemons then went on to the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School as a postdoctoral associate for four years. He’s the recipient of the National Institute of Health Pioneer Award and the Burroughs Wellcome Career Award in Biomedical Sciences. Clemons is currently a professor of biochemistry in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. He joined the Caltech faculty in 2005.

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