Distinguished scientist and renowned molecular biology researcher, June Bowman Nasrallah (BS '70) is Barbara McClintock Professor at the Plant Biology Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. She is celebrated for her pioneering research in plant reproductive biology and determining the molecular basis of self-incompatibility in plants. Bowman Nasrallah's work has many practical implications in advancing crop improvement and solving pressing societal problems, including food insecurity, through developing plants that are adapted to climate change, while preserving biodiversity and sustaining the ecosystem in a rapidly changing world.
Born in 1949 and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, June discovered a passion for science in high school at the
Collège Protestant Français, where she appreciated the “hands on" nature of biology courses and learned about the fascinating biology of plants in the school's gardens. She received her BS in biology at AUB in 1970, and although reluctant to leave her native Lebanon, she later pursued her PhD in genetics at Cornell. Her studies focused on the reproductive life phase of Neurospora, a prevalent fungal model for genetics study, and was able to characterize several proteins that are turned on during maturation of the mold's fruiting bodies. With geneticist Adrian Srb, she published five papers during this period describing the analysis of various Neurospora reproductive proteins, and she received her doctoral degree from Cornell in 1977.
In the early 1980s, June, with Mikhail Nasrallah (BS Agriculture '60), began studying the self-incompatibility system of flowering plants and the genetic mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. Self-incompatibility is a highly selective mechanism that many flowering plants have evolved to circumvent the propensity for self-fertilization caused by the proximity in the flower of the anthers which contain the pollen and the pistil which holds the egg cells. Self-incompatible plants fail to produce seed when pollinated with their own pollen or pollen from close relatives but can produce seed when pollinated with pollen from other strains. In this way, they avoid the adverse effects of inbreeding and maintain the genetic variation critical for long-term survival of their species.
The Nasrallahs and their team used a combination of genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, and molecular analysis to explain how the cells at the tip of the pistil which capture pollen can distinguish between different types of pollen. They found that self-related pollen is recognized and subsequently prevented from germinating through a highly specific lock-and-key interaction between a receptor kinase displayed at the surface of pistil cells and a small protein expressed exclusively in self-related pollen. This was the first time someone had been able to explain at a molecular level the phenomenon of self-incompatible plants, which Charles Darwin had observed more than 100 years ago.
Bowman Nasrallah is a keen mentor, intent on helping train and nurture the next generation of scientists. She is also devoted to serving the profession, serving on the editorial and advisory boards of numerous journals. She has authored or co-authored over 100 publications and her research has been cited in the most prestigious scientific journals. She is the recipient of several awards and honors including the Career Achievement Award from Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2016 and the Martin Gibbs Medal from the American Society of Plant Biologists in 2003. She is the current president and a founding member of the Lebanese Academy of Sciences and was elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences in 2003 in recognition of her decades of groundbreaking research.
June and Mikhail Nasrallah, who is currently professor emeritus at the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University, are also known for their philanthropy, including being generous donors to AUB, having given toward unrestricted general support in 2021 and pledged to establish the Mikhail and June Nasrallah Endowed Scholarship in 2022.