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Columbia Spectator Staff

Five faculty members have been elected as fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the country's most prestigious academic honor societies. The academy, which was founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, and John Hancock, announced 220 new members on Tuesday, including Barnard math professor emeritus Joan Birman, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory researcher Dennis Kent, Journalism School professor Michael Schudson, College of Physicians and Surgeons professor Steven Siegelbaum, and School of the Arts professor Kara Walker. Hillary Clinton, Melinda Gates, Clint Eastwood, and Mel Brooks were also among the fellows elected this year by the academy, which strives to "cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people," according to its website. Siegelbaum, who chairs the neuroscience department at P&S, researches the mechanisms neurons use to communicate with each other and how those mechanisms affect learning, behavior, and memory. He said that being elected to the academy wouldn't affect his future work, citing Columbia's academic environment as his main source of inspiration. "It's nice to get recognition, but the main goal of what I do at Columbia is the reward of the work in and of itself," he said. "Getting recognition is always nice, but the main thing, really, is to continue to focus on doing research and interesting science. I'm sure that's what my colleagues will continue to do in the future." Schudson said he was "delighted" to be honored by the academy, although he agreed with Siegelbaum that it would not affect his research trajectory. "I was very pleased," he said. "It's a ridiculously distinguished group of people this year." Schudson's academic background is in sociology, and he has written extensively about American popular culture and media. He attributed some of his academic renown to a report he wrote about the future of journalism in America, titled "The Reconstruction of American Journalism." "The report got a lot of attention," he said. "That factored, too, in trying to leverage my academic expertise in a more visible public policy light." Kent, a senior research scientist and adjunct professor, said that being honored by the academy is "humbling," especially considering the diversity of this year's inductees. "It was very thrilling, getting a superb honor like this," he said. "It's a very gracious honor that they've bestowed on me." Kent has focused on paleomagnetism, the study of the ancient Earth's magnetic field, which can help scientists understand the magnetic properties of the Earth's core. But at least from Kent's perspective, his election to the Academy was "a mystery." "It's a pretty eclectic mix, but I do basic research in Earth magnetism," he said. "In the end, the sum total of the work was noticed and found sufficient for this." Birman, who has been a Barnard math professor since 1973, specializes in topology and knot theory. Walker, a visual arts professor, has had her work featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. The 2012 fellows will be officially inducted Oct. 6 in a ceremony at the academy's headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. "It was particularly exciting to see that people like Clint Eastwood and Mel Brooks were elected in addition to scientists," Siegelbaum said. "It's a nice recognition."

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