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A Class of Their Own

LAS alum winners tackle novels, toxins, the sea, and genes.

LAS Alumni Award winners Richard Powers, Linda Birnbaum, Margaret Leinen, and Keith Westcott.

It’s select company: a National Book Award-winning writer, one of the leading toxicologists in the nation, a woman who helped spearhead some of the most important studies of the ocean, and a philanthropically-minded researcher who was there at the birth of the biotech revolution. These are the four winners of the top alumni awards from the University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2010.

Richard Powers, an English grad, won the National Book Award in 2006 for The Echo Maker, one of his 10 critically acclaimed novels. Considered one of the top writers in the country, Powers also was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a four-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at U of I and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters—the highest honor for a U.S. artist. Read more about Richard Powers.

Linda Birnbaum, a microbiology alum, is the first woman and first toxicologist to lead the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Since the 1970s, she has tackled the most serious toxicology issues of our time, from dioxins and PCBs to asbestos. Birnbaum split much of her career between the NIEHS and EPA and is currently leading an effort to assess the health risks posed by the 2010 Gulf oil spill. Read more about Linda Birnbaum.

Margaret Leinen made the ocean and climate her passion as she moved through many academic roles, served as assistant director for the National Science Foundation, and founded two environmental organizations. This geology grad helped lead the most ambitious ocean biogeochemical research program ever mounted. Today, her new organizations aim to reduce the climate change threat with strategies such as boosting the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon. Read more about Margaret Leinen.

Keith Westcott, a biochemistry alumnus, was at Amgen when it burst onto the scene in the 1980s, sparking the biotechnology revolution. He has brought this industrial know-how back to U of I, creating fellowships for graduate students in biochemistry. He also comes back to campus regularly to give talks, help with U of I Foundation activities, and teach a six-week course about pharmaceutical biotechnology from an industrial perspective. Read more about Keith Westcott.

By Doug Peterson
November 2010

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