chemistry

SMU chemist Alex Lippert receives 2017 NSF CAREER Award

Alex LippertSMU chemist Alex Lippert has received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, expected to total $611,000 over five years, to fund his research into alternative internal imaging techniques.

NSF CAREER Awards are given to tenure-track faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research in American colleges and universities.

Lippert, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Science, is an organic chemist and adviser to four doctoral students and five undergraduates who assist in his research. Lippert’s team develops synthetic organic compounds that glow in reaction to certain conditions. For example, when injected into a mouse’s tumor, the compounds luminesce in response to the cancer’s pH and oxygen levels. Place that mouse in a sealed dark box with a sensitive CCD camera that can detect low levels of light, and images can be captured of the light emanating from the mouse’s tumor.

“We are developing chemiluminescent imaging agents, which basically amounts to a specialized type of glow-stick chemistry,” Lippert says. “We can use this method to image the insides of animals, kind of like an MRI, but much cheaper and easier to do.”

Lippert says the nearest-term application of the technique might be in high-volume pre-clinical animal imaging, but eventually the technique could be applied to provide low-cost internal imaging in the developing world, or less costly imaging in the developed world.

But first, there are still a few ways the technique can be improved, and that’s where Lippert says the grant will come in handy.

“In preliminary studies, we needed to directly inject the compound into the tumor to see the chemistry in the tumor,” Lippert says. “One thing that’s funded by this grant is intravenous injection capability, where you inject a test subject and let the agent distribute through the body, then activate it in the tumor to see it light up.”

Another challenge the team will use the grant to explore is making a compound that varies by color instead of glow intensity when reacting to cancer cells. This will make it easier to read images, which can sometimes be buried under several layers of tissue, making the intensity of the glow difficult to interpret.

“We’re applying the method to tumors now, but you could use similar designs for other types of tissues,” Lippert says. “The current compound reacts to oxygen levels and pH, which are important in cancer biology, but also present in other types of biology, so it can be more wide-ranging than just looking at cancer.”

“This grant is really critical to our ability to continue the research going forward,” Lippert adds. “This will support the reagents and supplies, student stipends, and strengthen our collaboration with UT Southwestern Medical Center. Having that funding secure for five years is really nice because we can now focus our attention on the actual science instead of writing grants. It’s a huge step forward in our research progress.”

Lippert joined SMU in 2012. He was a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Berkeley, from 2009-12, earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008 and earned a bachelor’s in science at the California Institute of Technology in 2003.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” NSF is the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.

— Kenny Ryan

SMU Chemistry now accepting applications for new Ph.D. degree in Theoretical and Computational Chemistry

ManeFrame supercomputer at SMUSMU’s Department of Chemistry seeks to meet a high demand for well-trained computational and theoretical chemistry professionals with a new doctoral program. The department is now accepting applications for its Ph.D. program in Theoretical and Computational Chemistry.

The four-year, 66-unit degree offers “an intensive and success-oriented education in computational and theoretical chemistry, with the goal to prepare students for a future career in academia or private industry,” according to the department. Mandatory courses include advanced computational chemistry, computer-assisted drug design, Hartree-Fock Density Functional Theory and electron correlations methods; and models and concepts in chemistry, symmetry and group theory.

A minimum of five publications is expected for the thesis defense. The degree program also features extensive training in how to write a paper and prepare for presentations, interviews and a future career path.

The American Chemical Society’s ChemCensus 2010 reports that the number of computational chemists with a Ph.D. degree working in industry nearly doubled over 20 years, from 55,200 in 1990 to 109,500 in 2010. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be a further annual increase of at least 15 percent until 2022, making this the fastest-growing sector among all chemistry-related jobs.

For more information, contact Dr. Dieter Cremer or Dr. Elfi Kraka.

> Learn more about SMU’s Ph.D. in Theoretical and Computational Chemistry online

Research: Blue-light blues – SMU study shows how artificial lighting can interfere with health, sleep, even animal migration

A NASA image of Earth’s city lights using data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.

An image of Earth’s city lights using data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. (Credit: NASA)

An SMU study funded by the National Institutes of Health is unraveling the mystery of how blue light from residential and commercial lighting, electronic devices and outdoor lights can interfere with the natural body clocks of humans, plants and animals – and the negative consequences it can bring.

Exposure to blue light is on the increase, says SMU chemist Brian Zoltowski, who leads the study, “Protein : Protein interaction networks in the circadian clock.”

At the right time of day, blue light is a good thing. It talks to our 24-hour circadian clock, telling our bodies, for example, when to wake up, eat and carry out specific metabolic functions. In plants, blue light signals them to leaf out, grow, blossom and bloom. In animals, it aids migratory patterns, sleep and wake cycles, regulation of metabolism, as well as mood and the immune system.

But too much blue light — especially at the wrong time — throws biological signaling out of whack.

“As a society, we are using more technology, and there’s increasing evidence that artificial light has had a negative consequence on our health,” said Zoltowski, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Our study uses physical techniques and chemical approaches to probe an inherently biological problem,” he said. “We want to understand the chemical basis for how organisms use light as an environmental cue to regulate growth and development.”

SMU Assistant Professor of Chemistry Brian Zoltowski

SMU Assistant Professor of Chemistry Brian Zoltowski

Zoltowski’s lab was awarded $320,500 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health to continue its research on the impact of blue light. They are studying a small flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, Arabidopsis thaliana – a popular model organism in plant biology and genetics, Zoltowski says.

Although signaling pathways differ in organisms such as Arabidopsis when compared to animals, the flower still serves an important research purpose. How the signaling networks are interconnected is similar in both animals and Arabidopsis. That allows researchers to use simpler genetic models to provide insight into how similar networks are controlled in more complicated species like humans.

In humans, the protein melanopsin absorbs blue light and sends signals to photoreceptor cells in our eyes. In plants and animals, the protein cryptochrome performs similar signaling.

Much is known already about the way blue light and other light wavelengths, such as red and UV light, trigger biological functions through proteins that interact with our circadian clock. But the exact mechanism in that chemical signaling process remains a mystery.

“Light is energy, and that energy can be absorbed by melanopsin proteins that act as a switch that basically activates everything downstream,” Zoltowski said.

Melanopsin is a little-understood photoreceptor protein with the singular job of measuring time of day. When light enters the eye, melanopsin proteins within unique cells in the retina absorb the wavelength as a photon and convert it to energy. That activates cells found only in the eye — called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglian cells, of which there are only about 160 in our body. The cells signal the suprachiasmatic nucleus region of the brain.

“We keep a master clock in the suprachiasmatic nucleus — it controls our circadian rhythms,” he said. “But we also have other time pieces in our body; think of them as watches, and they keep getting reset by the blue light that strikes the master clock, generating chemical signals.”

The switch activates many biological functions, including metabolism, sleep, cancer development, drug addiction and mood disorders, to name a few.

“There’s a very small molecule that absorbs the light, acting like a spring, pushing out the protein and changing its shape, sending the signal. We want to understand the energy absorption by the small molecule and what that does biologically.”

The answer can lead to new ways to target diabetes, sleep disorders and cancer development, for example.

“If we understand how all these pathways work,” he said, “we can design newer, better, more efficacious drugs to help people.”

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

Provost announces names of 11 SMU Faculty in Residence

SMU's southeast campus residential complex

Artist’s rendering of SMU’s southeast campus residential complex, which will help support the University’s Residential Commons experience.

SMU Provost Paul Ludden has announced the appointment of eight new Faculty in Residence (FiRs) selected in the Spring 2013 semester. The new FiRs join the three “founding FiRs” as the first full cohort to become part of the University’s new Residential Commons (RC).

Faculty in Residence are chosen in a competitive selection process. When the Commons program launches in Fall 2014, each FiR will live in a residence hall and work with student leaders and Student Affairs staff to shape the Residential Commons experience.

> SMU Forum: Three SMU professors named first Faculty in Residence

Four FiRs have moved into residence halls a year early as part of the Residential Commons transition process: Ann Batenburg, Teaching and Learning, Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development; Mark Fontenot, Computer Science and Engineering, Lyle School of Engineering; Robert Krout, Music Therapy, Meadows School of the Arts; and Charles Wuest, English, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

The full list of faculty members who have been appointed for a 3-4 year term, and the halls where they will take up residence:

  • Ann Batenburg, Teaching and Learning – Virginia-Snider RC *
  • Martin Camp, School of Law – Residential Commons 4 (under construction)
  • Miroslava Detcheva, Spanish – McElvaney RC
  • Mark Fontenot, Computer Science and Engineering – Loyd RC (under construction) *†
  • Mark Kerins, Film and Media Arts – Morrison-McGinnis RC
  • Rita Kirk, Communication Studies – Armstrong RC (under construction)
  • Robert Krout, Music Therapy – Mary Hay/Peyton/Shuttles RC *†
  • Will Power, Theatre – Residential Commons 1 (under construction)
  • David Son, Chemistry – Boaz RC
  • Tom Tunks, Music – Residential Commons 3 (under construction) *†
  • Elizabeth Wheaton, Economics – Cockrell-McIntosh RC

* Living in residence during the 2013-14 academic year
† One of SMU’s three original Faculty in Residence, the “Founding FiRs

Along with the 11 FiRs, 23 Faculty Affiliates were selected and have been working in every residence hall on campus since the beginning of the year. For more information on participating in the Faculty Affiliate program, contact Jeff Grim, Residence Life and Student Housing.

> Learn more at the SMU Residential Commons website: smu.edu/residentialcommons

For the Record: May 3, 2013

Anthony Cortese, Sociology, Dedman College, participated in an invited panel discussion, Outside the Silo: The Interdisciplinary Teacher-Scholar, at the annual meetings of the Southern Sociological Society, held March 23-27, 2013 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta. He also presented a paper, The Tucson and Norway Massacres: Deconstructing Competing Narratives, in a session on Types of Crime and Victims.

Ron Wetherington, Anthropology, Dedman College, has been selected as a panelist for the Texas Education Agency in the review of proposed new science textbooks for the state. He will assess high school biology texts for 2014 adoption by the state Board of Education. The review runs from May to July 2013.

Shannon Woodruff, a Ph.D. candidate in the research lab of Nicolay Tsarevsky, Chemistry, Dedman College, was one of four national recipients of the Ciba Travel Award in Green Chemistry awarded annually by the American Chemical Society (ACS). The annual award sponsors the participation of high school, undergraduate and graduate students in an ACS technical meeting, conference or training program to expand the students’ education in green chemistry. Woodruff used his award in April to attend the 245th National Meeting of the ACS in New Orleans, where he presented his research on “Well-defined functional epoxide-containing polymers by low-catalyst concentration atom transfer radical polymerization.” Tsarevsky’s lab focuses on the synthesis of polymers with controlled molecular weight and architecture, and precise placement of specific functionalities including biomedical applications such as controlled delivery and imaging.

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