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Building named for Benkovic; honors for Okafor and Whitney

ASBMB Today Staff
April 1, 2024

Building named for Benkovic

The Pennsylvania State Board of Trustees Committee on Finance, Business and Capital Planning plan to rename the Chemistry Building at the University Park campus of Pennsylvania State University in honor of Stephen Benkovic, an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology member since 1970.

portrait of Stephen Benkovic
Stephen Benkovic

The Chemistry Building houses more than 85 research laboratories and was constructed in 2004.  

Tracy Langkilde, dean of the Eberly College of Science at Penn State, said in a press release: “The naming of the Benkovic Building recognizes this extraordinary research impact and the high regard that Penn State holds for Steve and his wife, Pat. They are an incredible team whose legacy is amplified through the trainees they have mentored.”  

Benkovic is an Atherton professor and Eberly chair in chemistry in the Eberly College of Science at Penn State. Benkovic was among the first scientists to hypothesize that conformational changes outside the enzyme’s active site were necessary for achieving maximal catalysis. He is also noted for his studies on the T4 replisome and the discovery of the purinosome in purine biosynthesis. He has studied many enzyme systems critical to human biology, contributing fundamental findings to the design of bacterial, fungal, HIV and cancer therapeutics.

Benkovic received the 2009 National Medal of Science from former U.S. President Barack Obama. His many honors include the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences, the American Chemical Society Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, the Royal Society Centenary Award, the ASBMB–Merck Award, the American Institute of Chemists Chemical Pioneer Award, the ACS Alfred Bader Award in Bioinorganic or Bioorganic Chemistry and the Pfizer Enzyme Award.

“Pat and I are surprised and deeply humbled,” Benkovic said in the press release. “Together with Pat’s experimental expertise and my excitement to apply chemistry to unsolved problems in biology, we have created a rich legacy of discoveries. Little of this would have been possible without the men and women whom I instructed and mentored that now are in equivalent positions throughout the world.”   

Okafor receives Cottrell award

The Research Corporation for Science Advancement has awarded Denise Okafor a 2024 Cottrell Scholar Award. Okafor is one of 19 early-career scholars in chemistry, physics and astronomy to receive the award.

Outdoor portrait of Denise Okafor
Denise Okafor

Cottrell Scholars are chosen through a peer-review process of applications from public and private research universities and primarily undergraduate institutions across the U.S. and Canada. The award proposals incorporate both research and science education.

Okafor is an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology as well as chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. Her research uses computational and experimental methods to understand the regulation of nuclear receptors. These receptors play critical roles in metabolism, development, reproduction and other biological processes, which make them attractive therapeutic targets.

Okafor’s previous honors and awards include the Marion Milligan Mason Award, the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award and a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface.

Okafor received the Cottrell Scholar Award for her proposal “Allostery and architecture: Building and validating functional models of multidomain receptors.” She will receive a $120,000 prize.

Whitney wins new investigator award

The Canadian Society for Chemistry has honored John Whitney with a new investigator award in biological chemistry. The award goes to a scientist working in Canada who has made significant contributions to biological chemistry or biophysical methods during the early stage of their research career. Whitney will formally accept this award and deliver a special lecture in June at the 2024 Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition.

portrait of John Whitney
John Whitney

Whitney is an associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster University. The Whitney lab studies the molecular mechanisms that underlie microbe–microbe interactions. His team recently published a study describing a barcode-like system that bacteria use to distinguish between beneficial and toxic molecules.

Whitney has received numerous early-career honors including the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences’ New Investigator Award, the American Chemical Society’s Infectious Diseases Young Investigator Award, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award and the Canadian Society of Microbiologists’ ThermoFisher Award.

“This CSC award is recognition of the importance of studying molecular structures and how they teach us new ways to kill bacteria,” Whitney said in a press release. “It is humbling to have our work acknowledged by the CSC, and I am grateful to the hardworking trainees in my group who conducted the research that led to this recognition.”

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