Five MCDB faculty will be gaining new titles come September. The University of Michigan regents approved their promotions at the May meeting.

Promoted to professor are Sara Aton, Ann Miller, and JK Nandakumar. Promoted to associate professor with tenure are Josie Clowney and Anthony Vecchiarelli.

Anthony Vecchiarelli was also selected to receive from the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, the 2024 Class of 1923 Memorial Teaching Award for outstanding teaching of undergraduates.

The following profiles were excerpted from the promotion materials presented to the Regents. You can read the documents in their entirety in the May 16, 2024 Minutes.


Sara Aton

Sara Aton

"Professor Aton has established herself as a world leader in the area of sleep and memory consolidation. She has a well-funded research program and a proven track record as a mentor for her trainees, from post-doctoral fellows to graduate and undergraduate students. Her exceptional record of productivity and the strong collaborations ensure that she will continue to make foundational findings on sleep, memory, and neuronal plasticity in the mammalian brain. This outstanding record of scholarship is matched by her dedication in the classroom, both for undergraduate and graduate courses. She is also an exceptionally generous citizen at the departmental, university, and national level."

"Professor Aton is a neurobiologist investigating the relationship between sleep and memory. Her research, along with others, has established that disruption of sleep impedes learning and memory. Using a mouse model her laboratory developed to study this phenomena, Professor Aton has used sophisticated genetic tools to identify some of the circuits in the brain that promote memory consolidation during sleep. In addition, her group has utilized molecular techniques to characterize the molecular changes in protein expression that occur in these sleep/memory neurons. This research, published in a half dozen papers while in rank, lays the foundation for a mechanistic view of sleep-dependent memory consolidation and how sleep disruption inhibits this process."

"Professor Aton’s versatility, along with her approachable teaching style, has greatly benefitted both our undergraduate and graduate educational missions. In her laboratory, she is a supportive and successful mentor for her post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate trainees, and is also a member of an exceptionally large number of thesis committees for students outside of her group."

"A reviewer’s remarked: “[Professor Aton] contributions to the field of neural circuit plasticity have been nothing short of extraordinary. She occupies a very special niche that combines expertise in mechanisms of synaptic and circuit plasticity in neocortex and hippocampus with the neurobiology of sleep, one of the great mysteries in neuroscience.'"

Ann L. Miller

Ann Miller

"Professor Miller has established herself as a world leader in the field maintenance of epithelial integrity. She has a well-funded research program and is a remarkably effective mentor for her trainees…. Her excellent research productivity and ability to develop new experimental tools ensure that she will continue to make impactful discoveries on the cellular systems that remodel and repair cellular junctions during such events as cell division. Professor Miller is also an outstanding instructor in her undergraduate and graduate courses and has performed important service in MCDB’s efforts to make the life sciences more inclusive. Her leadership in various programs across the university’s research community is also noteworthy and helps to maintain the success of our scientific enterprise."

"Professor Miller is an outstanding, innovative educator who has positively impacted Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology’s (MCDB) undergraduate and graduate-level educational missions...[As an associate professor] she has taught in five courses, most prominently in Fundamentals of Cell Biology (BIOLOGY 272). This is a course she co-created to fill an important gap in MCDB’s curriculum. Professor Miller has introduced several techniques into her classes to make them more interactive and spends considerable time with students outside of class. She is a dedicated mentor, helping her post-doctoral fellows obtain independent positions, and her doctoral trainees have had unusually high success in obtaining fellowships under her guidance. Professor Miller has also provided transformative research opportunities for many undergraduates."

"Professor Miller has also served as a mentor for MCDB junior faculty and is a member of MCDB’s aquatics steering committee. Her leadership in steering MCDB’s Horizons Summer Internship Program deserves special note: this program provides an intensive research experience for UM undergraduates from disadvantaged or URM backgrounds. Her work with Horizons provides structure, ensuring the sustainability of this important program."

"Professor Miller is a cell biologist studying how epithelial cells maintain their structure and permeability during physiological and environmental stress. Her research program incorporates state-of-the-art quantitative live imaging with innovative genetic approaches to examine how epithelial cells in amphibian embryos sense and repair damage to cellular junctions."

A reviewer wrote:"Lamenting recently to one of my mentors that I didn’t have time to read enough papers, he said, ‘Oh God, I don’t read anything anymore. Except papers by Ann Miller. I read all of those.’ That describes me, too."

Jayakrishnan Nandakumar

"Professor Nandakumar has established himself as a world leader in the field of telomere biology. He has a well-funded research program and is a strong mentor for his trainees, which include senior research staff, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students. His past record of productivity and the strong collaborations he has established ensure that he will continue to make impactful discoveries on how telomeres are maintained and why this is essential for cellular and organismal health. Professor Nandakumar is also an exceptionally talented instructor for a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses. He has performed important work to make his unit more inclusive and provides leadership for several university-wide scientific programs."

 "Professor Nandakumar’s teaching combines scientific rigor with an effective communication style that marks him as one of MCDB’s most popular instructors. In the laboratory, he has been a strong and supportive mentor for several graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, as well as numerous undergraduate researchers."

"Professor Nandakumar is a biochemist/structural biologist studying how the repetitive sequences at the ends of chromosomes, known as telomeres, are maintained to promote cell health and longevity. He is a world leader in the study of the shelterin complex, a group of proteins that protects telomeres and recruits an enzyme called telomerase to chromosome ends to add telomere repeats that are lost during DNA replication/cell division. Professor Nandakumar and his trainees have combined structural determination of shelterin subunits with site-specific mutagenesis as well as biochemical and cell culture assays to gain important insights in how the shelterin complex maintains chromosomal integrity."

A reviewer wrote: “He is a structural biologist who thinks deeply about the physiological questions that need to be addressed to understand important mechanisms. He has used structural approaches to define the mechanistic underpinnings of several functions of telomeres and how they are coordinated.”

E. Josie Clowney

E. Josie Clowney

"Professor Clowney is a leader in the areas of neuronal circuitry controlling innate and learned behaviors, as well as an innovative contributor to the area of gene regulation. Her intellectual creativity, combined with her exceptional talent at obtaining funding, and her ability to mentor a diverse group of trainees, ensures that her laboratory will make foundational discoveries in the future. Her research abilities are matched by her dedication to undergraduate and graduate education and her generosity extends to multiple areas of service at the departmental, university, and international levels."

 "Professor Clowney is a developmental geneticist using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model. Her diverse research program includes projects designed to understand how development wiring of the brain supports associated learning, as well as the molecular mechanisms underlying sexual behavior in male and female flies. In addition, she has a computational component examining how the organization of gene families in mammalian genomes influence their evolution and function. These projects combine elegant genetics and genomics, along with cutting-edge imaging techniques and computational analysis."

Notable among her teaching accomplishments she had “developed upper level courses, including “Cellular Diversity” (MCDB 464), which she has adapted to fulfill the LSA upper-level writing requirement.”

A reviewer wrote: “[Professor Clowney] is an exceptional young scientist who has demonstrated her highly original way to approach problems, her great skills, her breadth and her ability to identify and solve difficult questions through the development of new tools, but also through brilliant ideas and approaches.”

Anthony Vecchiarelli

Anthony Vecchiarelli

"Professor Vecchiarelli is a world leader in the study of how bacterial organelles are evenly distributed throughout the cells. His well-funded research program will continue to make important discoveries in bacterial cell biology and phase separation. He is a passionate and innovative educator at both the undergraduate and graduate level. His record of service at the departmental, university, and national/international level is also impressively high, and he is highly valued as a mentor and colleague by his MCDB colleagues."

"Since joining the UM faculty, he has taught large enrollment courses, including “Microbiology” (Biology 207), which is a gateway course for the Microbiology major and a popular choice for several other majors administered or co-administered by MCDB. Professor Vecchiarelli was instrumental in revamping the curriculum for this course, which has resulted in a 70% increase in enrollment since 2018. In addition, Professor Vecchiarelli has created a new upper-level course for undergraduates, “Building a Synthetic Cell” (MCDB 472), focused on critical analysis and writing. One project resulted in a published review authored by MCDB 472 students. He has also been an exceptional mentor for post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate researchers. His public outreach activities are also noteworthy, many of which are in conjunction with the UM Museum of Natural History."

"Professor Vecchiarelli is a microbiologist who utilizes biochemistry, real-time imaging, and genetics to understand how bacteria evenly distribute their cellular components during cell division, most notably carbon-fixing organelles known as carboxysomes in photosynthetic bacteria. He is a world leader in the study of how two-component McdAB systems achieve even partitioning in multiple bacterial species. He is also becoming a leader in the study of biomolecular condensates in bacteria, where biomolecules phase-separate from the surrounding liquid to promote cellular processes. His multi-disciplinary approach to understanding how bacterial cells partition their contents and the role of phase separation in this process places him at the forefront of this research area."

Reviewers provided these comments: “Dr. Vecchiarelli’s strength lies in his ability to pull from very different disciplines including single molecule analysis, bacterial genetics, cell biology, and quantitative biology to understand complex phenomena.”

“Dr. Vecchiarelli is one of the [junior] stars of the bigger field of bacterial cell biology and an undisputed leader in the study of carboxysomes and other bacterial organelles.”

2024 Class of 1923 Memorial Teaching Award

Anthony Vecchiarelli was also selected to receive the 2024 Class of 1923 Memorial Teaching Award for outstanding teaching of undergraduates. According to the announcement by Dean Curzan, the college was deeply impressed by his commitment to continuous improvement as a teacher and mentor, citing his contributions to Bio 207 “have made what could seem a remote topic and an intimidating introductory course into an exciting and challenging adventure. Your focus on getting students to understand what we don’t know, even in introductory courses, is admirable.” She also cited Vecchiarelli’s course on Building a Synthetic Cell, “which invites students into one of the grand challenges for science in this century, and asks them to ponder deeply where the transition from chemistry to biology might lie. This is just the kind of course that we point to when we tell students why it is so valuable to study the liberal arts at a great research university.”

The Class of 1923 Memorial Teaching Award recipients are selected each year by the College Executive Committee from among those recommended for promotion from assistant professor to associate professor with tenure who have demonstrated outstanding teaching during their first years on the faculty. While this award recognizes teaching, it is our belief that excellence in teaching goes hand in hand with excellence in research. As a result, this award is only given to individuals whose achievements foretell a prolific career as a scholar, teacher, and mentor.