Pope picks Rice professor for science academy

Physicist José Onuchic named to lifetime post with Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Rice University physicist José Onuchic has been appointed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope Francis.

Onuchic, the first Rice faculty member to be named to the academy, is the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair of Physics and a professor of physics and astronomy, of chemistry and of biosciences, and co-director of the National Science Foundation-backed Center for Theoretical Biological Physics.

José Onuchic

José Onuchic

Onuchic is expected to contribute to the academy’s biennial plenary sessions and to participate in scientific meetings of relevance to his research. Onuchic spoke at the most recent plenary in 2018.

The academy has operated under its present name since 1936, but has its roots in the Academy of the Lynxes, founded in Rome in 1603. According to the Vatican, it was the first exclusively scientific academy in the world, with Galileo Galilei as an early member.

According to the Vatican, the nondenominational academy’s aim “is to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of epistemological problems relating thereto.”

A letter to Onuchic noted the academy’s 80 members are chosen on the basis of their original scientific studies and their moral personality, “without any ethnic or religious discrimination.” Members are nominated for life by the pope.

“I grew up in a Catholic family, so anyone with that background is going to be greatly honored by being chosen,” Onuchic said.

“This academy advises the church on major scientific issues and knowledge and their benefits to society. Topics include, for example, health, climate change, energy, the impacts of poverty and genetic engineering,” he said. “In this regard, the academy serves an important function, considering that almost any comment that comes from the Vatican has an impact on more than just the Catholic community.”

Onuchic joined Rice in 2011 with a grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. He integrates biochemical and biological models from the molecular level and above to find new ways to treat disease. Onuchic’s studies incorporate his breakthrough work on protein folding and energy landscapes.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.