Two COSAM Researchers Recipients of AAAS Distinction

By: Maria Gebhardt

Ken Halanych and Stewart Schneller
Ken Halanych and Stewart Schneller

Dr. Kenneth M. Halanych of the Department of Biological Sciences and Dr. Stewart W. Schneller of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) at Auburn University are the recipients of the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellows.

AAAS Fellows are selected by their peers and have made a significant advancement in the field of science.

“I am extremely proud that Ken Halanych and Stewart Schneller are being recognized as 2018 AAAS Fellows,” explains Dean Nicholas Giordano. “This prestigious lifetime distinction affirms the level of high-quality research and commitment in Auburn University’s College of Sciences and Mathematics.”

Dr. Halanych is recognized for his contributions on invertebrate evolution and marine genomics. “I am excited and humbled to be recognized as an AAAS Fellow for my work in the field of science,” says Dr. Halanych. A professor in Biological Sciences since 2013, he is known internationally for his research and has authored almost 80 papers in major publications.

Dr. Schneller is recognized for his excellence on research, development of the next generation of scientists, public outreach and innovative educational efforts within in the general community. “It is a tremendous honor to be selected as an AAAS Fellow based on my contributions,” shares Dr. Schneller, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and former Dean of COSAM. Regularly since 2012, the Schneller laboratory at Auburn University has reported compounds with broad spectrum effectiveness towards the four hemorrhagic fever viral classes, including Ebola.

Dr. Halanych and Dr. Schneller join more than 20 researchers at Auburn University including 10 researchers in COSAM that are AAAS Fellows. 

To access this article on the COSAM website, please visit:

For a list of all 2018 elected fellows, visit the AAAS webpage available at:

Minmin Yang (Post-Doc) takes his company, PharmaBlock, public at Shenzhen Stock Exchange

Minmin Yang was a Post-Doc in the lab from 2002 to 2005. His company, PharmaBlock, based in Nanjing, China, went public recently at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. These pictures are from the special event commemorating the Initial Public Offering (IPO). Minmin was able to ring the opening bell at the stock exchange.

Minmin says he wore the Auburn tie for this special occasion, “to recognize the memorable time he had with Auburn.”

PharmaBlock Sciences (Nanjing), Inc. is a leading innovative chemistry products and services provider throughout the pharmaceutical R&D process. Its core businesses include: a catalog of specially designed scaffolds and building blocks; custom synthesis; process development; manufacturing of key intermediates and RSMs; and FTE services.

Minmin Yang

Minmin Yang wearing an Auburn tie at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange event for his company’s IPO.

Minmin Yang ringing bell with PharmaBlock representatives

Minmin Yang with PharmaBlock representatives

Minmin Yang at the IPO event.

Minmin Yang at the IPO event.

Minmin Yang with family

Minmin Yang with family

Minmin Yang with colleagues

Minmin Yang with colleagues

Photographs from the ceremony for recognition as a Fellow of the American Chemical Society

Stewart Schneller with Donna J. Nelson, Immediate Past President of ACS.

Stewart Schneller with Donna J. Nelson, Immediate Past President of ACS.

Stewart Schneller with Donna J. Nelson, Immediate Past President of ACS.[/caption]Stewart Schneller at the ACS meeting in Washington, DC. August 21, 2017.
Donna J. Nelson, Immediate Past President, American Chemical Society

Ceremony for recognition as a Fellow of the American Chemical Society.

Photos by Peter Cutts Photography.

Stewart Schneller with Donna J. Nelson, Immediate Past President of ACS.

Schneller named Fellow of the American Chemical Society

Stewart Schneller headshot
By: Candis Birchfield

Stewart Schneller, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and former dean of the College of Sciences and Mathematics, was selected as a 2017 Fellow of the American Chemical Society. The prestigious honor recognizes outstanding achievements in and contributions to science, the profession, and the American Chemical Society.

“Needless to say, I am honored by this recognition that also acknowledges those who have been part of my career: undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral research associates, my professional, faculty and administrative colleagues, and my family,” said Schneller.

Schneller was recognized by the Charlotte, North Carolina, American Chemical Society section in 2002 with the Stone Award, given annually to a chemist in the Southeast who has “excelled in research, development of the next generation of scientists, public outreach, mentoring, innovative educational efforts, and public outreach. He has also held numerous positions in the Division of Medicinal of Chemistry of the American Chemical Society. 

Schneller began his academic career in 1971 as an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of South Florida. He rose through the ranks becoming full professor seven years later in 1978, and chair of the 32-faculty-member department in 1986. While at the University of South Florida, Schneller taught sophomore organic chemistry and graduate courses in heterocyclic chemistry, medicinal chemistry, and natural products, and was named Outstanding Professor by the graduating senior class. He also began his research career with a focus on nucleosides and developing novel synthetic methods, as well as researching their application as biological mechanistic probes and as anticancer, antiviral and antiparasitic agents. The research was funded by $2.6 million in external grant support. 

In addition to leadership in the Division of Medicinal Chemistry of the American chemical Society, he hosted the 7th International Congress of Heterocyclic Chemistry and served as president of the International Society of Heterocyclic Chemistry. Schneller chaired the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of South Florida, and served as the university’s Faculty Athletic Representative to the NCAA for 13 years and as president of the Metro Conference and the Sun Belt Conference. He was a consultant for Burroughs Wellcome (now Glaxo Smith Kline) pharmaceutical company.

In 1994, Schneller came to Auburn as dean of the College of Sciences and Mathematics, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and associate director of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station. He continued his research in nucleoside antiviral drug discovery that has been funded with greater than $8 million from the National Institutes of Heath (NIH). His focus has been on those viral pathogens that block host immune response to their presence, including the flavi- and filo viruses. While dean, he served four years on the Med Chem A study section of the NIH and continues to serve in an ad hoc capacity.

His research has appeared in more than 150 peer-reviewed publications, and he is credited with a number of provisional patents. He is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Heterocyclic Chemistry, Heterocyclic Communications, Current Medicinal Chemistry, Medicinal Chemistry, and Antiviral Chemistry and Chemotherapy. From 2010 to 2012, he served as a regional editor for the International Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

Twenty-nine doctoral students, nine master’s students, and 29 postdoctoral associates who have been in Schneller’s research laboratory have gone on to academic institutions such as Cal-Berkeley, Georgia Tech, Carnegie-Mellon, Kansas State University, the College of William and Mary, and Slippery Rock University. One doctoral student became Senior Director of Chemistry at Exelisis Pharmaceuticals (having 44 patents and one clinically active drug), another a CEO of Pharmablock (a 21st century biotech drug discovery pharmaceutical company), and a third a National Academy of Sciences, Jefferson Science Fellow, U.S. Department of State. More than 50 undergraduate students have performed research in Schneller’s lab, and many have written honors theses as an outcome of the experience. 

After stepping down as dean in 2010, Schneller has continued vigorous research and innovative teaching activities including iBook/ePub development, internet accessible videos for course enhancement, and, recently, creating VR course material.

Schneller professor reports breakthrough on the evolution of the innate immune system

By: Candis Birchfield

The laboratory of Kenneth Halanych, the Schneller Endowed Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences, has made a discovery that could have widespread implications for how scientists study the function of the human immune system. Led by doctoral student Michael Tassia, the team discovered that humans and their closest invertebrate relatives share core components in their immune systems.

“Humans belong to a group called ‘Deuterostomes’ that include vertebrate animals as well as invertebrate animals like sea stars, sea urchins, sea squirts and acorn worms,” said Tassia.

“All of these groups had gill slits, much like fish, early in their history,” added Halanych.

Tassia and the team in the Halanych lab studied genetic datasets of more than 40 different deuterostome species including human, vase tunicate (Ciona intestinalis), Florida lancelet (Branchiostoma floridae), purple urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), and an acorn worm from the northwest Atlantic Ocean (Saccoglossus kowalevskii). The research showed evidence that humans and other deuterostomes share a common evolutionary history of their innate immune systems.

“Humans and other vertebrates possess two types of immune systems – innate and adaptive,” said Tassia. “The adaptive immune system is the one we are more familiar with. It contains components such as antibodies that allow for ‘immunological memory,’ which is why immunizations are an effective tool against diseases and pathogens. Whereas the adaptive immune system must ‘learn’ to recognize a pathogen, the innate immune system is prepared from the get-go. The innate immune system relies on a suite of molecules called ‘pattern-recognition receptors’ which, over long periods of evolution, have adapted to recognize common molecular patterns associated with bacteria, fungi and viruses. So, if bacteria like E. coli get into somewhere they shouldn’t, such as a really nasty paper cut, cells in your body sporting these pattern-recognition receptors are ready to mount a rapid immune response, causing inflammation, recruiting more immune cells, and destroying those bacteria.”

Tassia explained that the adaptive immune system is exclusive to vertebrates. Components of the innate immune system, on the other hand, predate vertebrates and are present in groups as old as jellies, whose last common ancestor with vertebrates existed more than 500 million years ago. As a result, he began his work by comparing the most well-known pattern-recognition receptors, “Toll-like receptors,” or TLRs, from more than 40 different invertebrate and vertebrate species.

“In our research, we looked at the much bigger system, starting with the diversity of TLRs in each of our species and continuing further by examining whether or not all the other important components required for the system to work are present across deuterostomes,” said Tassia. “Our findings indicate that nearly all the components are present across all the major deuterostome groups, suggesting their innate immunity system was present in the last common ancestor more than 500 million years ago and was expanded upon in vertebrates and other groups. Our study also used phylogenetic methods to evaluate the similarity of TLRs between major animal lineages. Interestingly, we were able to identify a group of TLRs very closely related to a mammalian TLR that is critical for recognizing viruses, suggesting this particular method for antiviral defense may be more evolutionarily ancient than previously expected and could predate the origin of vertebrates.”

The realization that the innate immune system of vertebrates and their close invertebrate relatives is similar opens the door to developing more controllable laboratory experiments to understand immune system evolution.

“Often the generation time and ability to keep invertebrates in the laboratory can make them logistically favorable for studying vertebrate systems,” said Halanych.

The research findings are the result of years of study, beginning with Halanych’s dissertation and long-standing interest in the evolution of hemichordates and echinoderms, and continuing with the work of doctoral students in the Halanych lab, as well as publically available information from the National Institutes of Health. Tassia gathered several terabytes of genetic data from the previous research efforts and spent approximately two years developing a bioinformatic, computational framework that allowed him to confidently identify and perform analysis on specific genes.

“This work is a great example of how bioinformatics tools can help answer important questions of organismal biology,” said Halanych. “The Tassia et al. paper has helped push the laboratory, and Auburn University, further into the forefront of marine invertebrate genomics.”

The research results were published in the prestigious scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (or PNAS) in a paper titled, “Toll-like receptor pathway evolution in deuterostomes.”

PNAS is one of the top scientific journals and run by the USA National Academy of Sciences, which is an association of the world’s top scientists across many disciplines. Intellectual and scientific standards for the journal are very high, signifying that work published in PNAS is likely to have a significant impact on the field of study.

To read the research paper on the discovery, “Toll-like receptor pathway evolution in deuterostomes,” go to this address:

For more information on Tassia and the Halanych laboratory, visit the website: