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Star chemists George Barany (left) and Donald Truhlar
The chemistry is right: Two professors win top national awards
Donald Truhlar and George Barany help spotlight the University's chemistry prowess
By Deanne Morrison
Published on September 9, 2005
A rare alignment of stars occurred last week when University chemistry professors Donald Truhlar and George Barany were among the approximately 50 scientists who won national awards from the American Chemical Society (ACS). With close to 160,000 members, ACS is the largest professional society in the world. Given that pool of talent, "having two awards in a single department is really rare," says new chemistry department chair Jeff Roberts. University of Minnesota chemists have won a total of 15 ACS awards. In the 52 years between 1934 and 1986, U of M faculty brought home only eight. But since 1997 the U has garnered seven awards, including another one to Truhlar in 2000. Roberts hopes Truhlar's and Barany's success signals a trend that will continue with younger, up-and-coming faculty. "Since 1990 we've been hiring brilliant young chemists at a rather high rate, and they're coming into their own as mature scientists now," says Roberts. "These awards signal the world that our chemistry department is a major player."
For Barany, winning the ACS's Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry completes a circle begun when his graduate school adviser, Nobel laureate Bruce Merrifield, won the first Hirschmann award in 1990. Barany has pioneered methods to synthesize, or construct, peptides, which can be thought of as small proteins or protein-like substances. These include molecules like the labor-inducing hormone oxytocin, several neurotransmitters and drugs, and enzymes.
"Since 1990 we've been hiring brilliant young chemists at a rather high rate, and they're coming into their own as mature scientists now," says Roberts. "These awards signal the world that our chemistry department is a major player.""We work on better, cheaper, faster and more reliable ways to synthesize peptides, including some that can function as drugs," says Barany. "A key point is that the big advance at the turn of the century was sequencing the genome. But the workhorse molecules [that carry out our genes' instructions] are peptides and proteins. We need ways to synthesize them to study them." Or, in many cases, to manufacture them in ways that produce more product and consume less time, energy and money. Many of these compounds exist in the body naturally, but in such small quantities that extracting them for study is impractical. To get around this problem, Barany has devised a chemical matrix that works as a scaffolding for making peptides, much as a table serves as a scaffolding for rolling out dough when making bread. The University has patented the technology, which is among the top 30 royalty-producing patents for the U. Chemists everywhere have adopted Barany's methods because they help solve many different problems involving peptides. "George is developing creative new ways to synthesize peptides, with implications ranging from the development of new therapeutic agents to new materials that can be used to understand biological processes," says Roberts. The son of prominent chemists, Barany is also the brother of a Cornell University microbiology professor, the husband of a chemist and the father of two high-ability children, one of whom was a finalist in a national science talent search this year. As a teenager, Barany skipped college and went straight to the Rockefeller University, where he earned a doctorate in 1977. Among his other awards, he was listed among "America's 100 Brightest Scientists Under 40" by Science Digest in 1984. He was named a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in 1997. To Truhlar, winning the ACS's Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry puts him in good company; the list of previous winners includes numerous Nobelists and similar-caliber chemists. At first glance, Truhlar's work may seem inaccessibly complex: He's in the business of computing the rates at which chemical reactions occur. But the importance of his work becomes clear from a consideration of what happens when a drug enters a person's body. "A drug must arrive at the site of biological action to perform its intended task," says Truhlar. "But a drug may react with other things in the body and get destroyed, and so become unable to do its job. Or, it may react in such a way as to produce toxic side effects." Being able to predict such chemical reactions beforehand can help scientists design drugs to maximize their effectiveness while minimizing side effects. The beauty of Truhlar's work is that his methods work for scientists studying all kinds of chemical reactions, including those that can't be run in a laboratory. For example, chemical reactions between pollutants and ozone high in the atmosphere occur at temperatures too low to work with directly. But by applying Truhlar's theories, scientists can extrapolate to conditions in the upper atmosphere and calculate the reaction rates. "Don is developing methods that can be applied to problems we don't even know about today," says Roberts. "He is one of the most cited chemists in the world." As director of the University's Supercomputing Institute since the late 1980s, Truhlar has made its resources available to a broad group of faculty, including those who use high-performance computing as an adjunct to their work rather than as its focus. In 2000, he won the ACS Award in Computers in Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research, and he has also received a comparably ranked award in computational science from the National Academy of Sciences. Both Truhlar and Barany will be honored later this month at a celebration for University people who have developed new intellectual property with the potential for boosting the state's economy.