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University of Utah
Professor and chairwoman of chemistry Cynthia Burrows was one of three University of Utah researchers elected to the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday, April 29, 2014.

SALT LAKE CITY — When calls of congratulations came for Polly Wiessner on Tuesday morning, she forgot all about the spaghetti sauce on the stove and the bread in the oven.

"I was so shocked, I burned the food," she said. "It was such a surprise to me."

Wiessner, an anthropologist, was one of three researchers at the University of Utah to be elected Tuesday to the National Academy of Sciences.

Wiessner, along with professor and chairwoman of chemistry Cynthia Burrows and biochemist Wesley Sundquist, joined the 36 other past and present U. researchers recognized by the academy.

The Washington-based society was first established by President Abraham Lincoln as a group of experts designated to inform national policymakers on current knowledge in medicine, engineering and other sciences.

The nonprofit organization has since become one of the most prestigious groups in the scientific community, Burrows said.

"For individual scientists, getting elected to the National Academy is like the next best thing to getting a Nobel Prize," she said.

Wiessner, who has been at the U. for 18 years, has been doing social network research among the Kalahari bushmen of Botswana and Namibia for 40 years. She has also spent time researching native tribes in Papua New Guinea, as well post-war Vietnam. She is now the fourth current member of the U.'s anthropology department to be nominated to the academy.

"In the third world where I've been working, there's been so much alcohol, violence and loss of culture, and sometimes I feel so drained," Wiessner said. "This nomination has really given me the courage to continue in what is really hard work, because it's often two steps forward, one step back."

In the university's chemistry department, Burrows' research has focused on the chemical changes in the bases that make up human DNA, and the mutations that can result in age-related conditions, such as cancer. A U. faculty member of 19 years, she is the third person to be nominated to the academy from her department.

Sundquist began his research at the U. 22 years ago and has since focused on how HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — gets out of cells and spreads throughout the human body.

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"A lot of people contribute to what we end up publishing," he said. "(The nomination) feels like a nice collective acknowledgement of what we've accomplished."

While recognition from colleagues and acquaintances has been plentiful, Burrows said the praise she cherishes most came in a letter from the scientific researcher she knew best — her daughter.

"She wrote back right away with a comment about how awesome that was," she said. "There are a lot of people qualified to be elected to the academy, and some of us get lucky. I feel like I got lucky today."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com