September 21, 2009 — Michael Menaker, Commonwealth Professor of Biology at the University of Virginia, has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
Frans Zwarts, rector magnificus of the Dutch school, said Menaker was chosen for the award "based on his immensely important and influential scientific work in the area of chronobiology." Menaker was recognized during the celebrations of the University of Groningen's 395th birthday this year in June.
According to the award proposal, "For a generation of researchers into the biological clock, including those in Groningen, Michael Menaker is the giant on whose shoulders they stand."
Menaker was the first researcher to demonstrate that the "biological clock" – the timer in our bodies that governs day and night rhythms – is located in a brain nucleus. When defining this brain nucleus, he called it "the ringmaster of the circadian circus."
"Circadian rhythmicity is a fundamental property of virtually all living things," Menaker has said.
Menaker proved that the biological clock is something concrete located in organ tissue. He discovered early on that in birds this occurs without the help of the eyes; their biological clock is located in the pineal gland.
He has also investigated how the clock synchronizes with the rhythm of day and night in the environment. More recently, his team has demonstrated that a mammalian eye not only has rods and cones, but also light-sensitive cells that are used not for seeing, but to synchronize the biological clock with the environment. Other organs, such as the lungs and the liver, also turn out to contain their own clock cells.
After earning his Ph.D. from Princeton and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, Menaker taught at the University of Texas-Austin and the University of Oregon. He joined the U.Va. biology faculty in 1987.
Menaker's many students have continued to delve deeply into the molecular-genetic mechanism behind the biological clock.