Lou Charkoudian Named 2018 Cottrell Scholar
The assistant professor of chemistry is one of only two dozen early career academic scientists to receive this year's honor, which comes with a $100,000 award.
Every year the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement (RCSA), which is devoted to the advancement of STEM through funding projects in the physical sciences, awards $100,000 to 24 early career teacher-scholars in chemistry, physics, and astronomy as part of their Cottrell Scholars program. This year, Lou Charkoudian, a Class of 2003 alumna and Haverford assistant professor of chemistry, was one of the recipients recognized for the quality and innovation of her research program and her academic leadership skills.
"It is a tremendous honor to receive this award," said Charkoudian. "I am most excited about being a Cottrell Scholar because of the networking opportunities it affords. In July, I will be headed out to Tucson Arizona for the annual Cottrell Scholars conference, which is expected to draw about 100 top educators from around the U.S. I will be presenting at this conference, and I am really excited to share with the community the wonderful things we do at Haverford College."
Charkoudian's award will support her lab's research in how microorganisms make molecules that humans can repurpose as pharmaceutical agents and biofuels.
"These microorganisms can make molecules that are more structurally complex and biologically active than what humans can make in a laboratory setting—and the microorganisms use sustainable materials with water as their solvent," she said. "We want to understand this remarkable feat!"
Currently that means she is focused on acyl carrier proteins, which are part of a team of proteins that use bacteria to build and modify the molecule, and the way they shuttle molecular building blocks to the appropriate protein partner at the appropriate time while protecting the molecule from undesirable reactions. ("With over 20 partners in many biosynthetic pathways, this is a non-trivial task!" says Charkoudian.) In both her research lab and in her "Biochemistry Superlab" course, which integrates original research into its classwork and is currently underway in collaboration with Professor of Biology Karl Johnson, Charkoudian and her students are using an innovative technique, known as site-specific vibrational spectroscopy, to study the molecular details of how the acyl carrier protein does its job.
"We are using methods spanning chemistry, biology, and physics, and so students working on this project will truly be trained as interdisciplinary scientists," she said.
This work is related to other grant-funded work in which Charkoudian is currently involved. She earned a National Science Foundation CAREER grant to study the evolutionary history of how nature creates structural diversity and to use that information to discover new chemicals and chemical reactions catalyzed by proteins within microorganisms. She and Associate Professor of Chemistry Casey Londergan also have funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop their method of using site-specific vibrational spectroscopy to look at acyl carrier protein conformational dynamics.
At the heart of her work, though, is a desire to incorporate real-world research opportunities into her classroom teaching. Charkoudian recently co-authored a paper in PLOS Biology with the 2015 cohort of "Biochemistry Superlab" students and her co-teacher that semester, Professor of Biology Rob Fairman, that detailed not only the results of their in-class research, but also how the class itself was designed to facilitate such research. And she is particularly excited that this new award will support work done by this semester's "Biochemistry Superlab" course.
"I am passionate about integrating original research opportunities in the classroom and the Cottrell Scholars Award will explicitly support these efforts," she said. "I find that this is the most relevant and effective way to train students to be future critical thinkers. … As part of the Cottrell Scholars funded project I will also develop a digital repository for documents related to integrating original research in undergraduate biochemistry laboratories, thereby creating a community resource for the exchange of ideas and expanding the impact of our work well beyond the bounds of Haverford College."
RCSA is a private foundation that aims to support physical sciences research and education in America. RCSA funds innovative research of college and university faculty members. The foundation was originally established by UC Berkeley professor Frederick Gardner Cottrell in 1912, who invented the electrostatic precipitator to counter air pollution produced by the industrial revolution.