April 21, 2016–George E. Fox has spent much of his life investigating the mysteries of biology. His research has been described as “Nobel worthy” and his contributions to the University of Houston during nearly four decades as extraordinary.
It is no wonder then that UH has bestowed Fox, John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Biology and Biochemistry, with its highest faculty honor — the Esther Farfel Award. The award, which carries a $10,000 cash prize, recognizes excellence in teaching, research and service.
“I am pleased to have been chosen as this year’s recipient of the Farfel Award,” Fox said, adding that his passion for science was ignited during his youth.
“As a child, I was always interested in science, which was especially consistent with the exciting things going on in the space program,” Fox said. “I had a Gilbert chemistry set quite unlike what is sold these days. There was even radioactive material included.”
At that point, Fox was hooked…for life.
“I attended Syracuse Central Technical High School with a major in technical chemistry,” Fox said. “Over a three-year period, we took classes in general chemistry, quantitative analysis and organic chemistry. In our first class, the instructor taught us about chemical reactivity. He put a piece of sodium in water, which quickly erupted into flames. The next time, he added potassium, but there weren’t as many flames, then he added calcium, which was very disappointing.”
Fox continued to follow his interest in science at Syracuse University, where he received a bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in chemical engineering. It was at Syracuse that Fox became fascinated with life sciences, which led him to pursue a postdoctoral position in theoretical biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There, he was advised by and worked with Carl R. Woese, famed microbiologist and biophysicist. Their collaboration resulted in the discovery of the Archaea.
“Stating it briefly, a large fraction of all living things are members of the domain of life known as the Archaea that was discovered by Dr. Fox,” his nominator explained. “If the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology was a prize for systematic biology, George Fox would be a Nobel Laureate. I know of no other UH faculty member whose scientific contributions are worthy of recognition at this level.”
And another supporter, a biochemistry and molecular biology professor in Nova Scotia, said “the discovery of the Archaea and the revolutions in microbial systematics and evolutionary biology that followed it are, unquestionably, the most significant developments in those fields in the last century.”
Even more intrigued with life sciences after the discovery, Fox packed up his belongings and moved from Illinois to the Lone Star state to join UH as an assistant professor in 1977.
“UH was particularly attractive because Dr. Juan Oró, an early Farfel Award recipient, was here,” Fox said. “He had discovered the prebiotic synthesis of adenine and was a member of the Mars Viking exploration team in 1976. Moreover, he was very interested in the work I had been doing at the University of Illinois.”
Since those early years, Fox’s reputation as a distinguished scientist has only grown, and rightly so considering his achievements in scholarly publications and external funding. During the course of his lengthy career at UH, Fox has raised nearly $9 million in grants to support his research, which currently focuses on understanding the early evolution of life through investigations of the structure, function, and evolution of ribosomes.
Fox’s record of publication and list of scholarly presentations are equally as impressive. He has published more than 170 peer-reviewed scientific papers in such respected journals as Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. His research has received close to 17,000 citations, making him one of the most cited scholars in his field, a supporter observed.
Fox’s role at UH, though, is not limited to research. He has taught countless students and has mentored 30 doctoral students and 18 master’s students. More than 30 undergraduates have participated in projects with his research group. Fox has also served in various administrative positions including Director of the Institute for Molecular Biology, Vice Chair of the Department of Biology and Biochemistry and Chair of its predecessor, the Department of Biochemical and Biophysical Science.
“Professor Fox represents the very best of us at UH,” his nominator commented, listing Fox’s many honors.
His accolades include election as a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, and the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life.
Although Fox is legendary among his peers, he remains “unpretentious yet effective,” observed another supporter, adding, “One easily overlooks his accomplishments, but he clearly is among the most meritorious scientists alive today.”
By Francine Parker