Texas Tech University

Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Enjoys Record-Breaking Summer

Glenys Young

September 29, 2017


The department received an unprecedented $5.1 million in grants in a three-month span.

Yehia Mechref
Yehia Mechref

The Texas Tech University Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry saw its most lucrative summer on record this year, with faculty members bringing in grants and awards totaling more than $5 million.

"Each one of these awards has its own accolades associated with it and its scientific component, making it very competitive,” said Yehia Mechref, a professor and chair of the department since June 1. "In this day and age, receiving federal funds is not trivial. Federal money is very scarce and we, as a department, over a three-month period, successfully brought in $5.1 million.

"I've been here for seven years. If we go by history, this is the most successful summer by far. If you count the awards numerically – forget about the dollar sign associated with them – this is by far the largest number of awards the department received in a summer. If you count individuals, you're talking about 11 awards.”

The awards

John D'Auria
John D'Auria

Assistant professor John D'Auria received an $800,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) collaborative grant for his three-year project "Collaborative research: A systems approach toward understanding the diversification of tropane and granatane alkaloid biosynthesis.” D'Auria's share of the grant is $332,248.

Numerous plants produce special substances that can protect them from herbivores and disease-causing organisms as well as attract pollinators and symbiotic partners for beneficial interactions. Humans have used some of these bioactive properties in medicines, but researchers' overall understanding of how the substances are produced is lacking, and that limits their ability to develop them for new uses.

"Developing a systems-level understanding of plant metabolism will infer strategies to improve their utility as sources of food, fuel, fiber and pharmaceuticals,” D'Auria said. "The research funded under this award will investigate tropane and granatane biosynthesis across three different plant families to test the hypothesis that their alkaloid biosynthetic pathways evolved independently of one another. This research will provide multiple opportunities for interdisciplinary training in genomics, structural biology, biochemistry and analytical chemistry to graduate and undergraduate students.”

Michael Findlater
Michael Findlater

Associate professor Michael Findlater received a $79,947 NSF grant to study water treatment in collaboration with Weile Yan, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering. Findlater's share is $40,000.

The pair will examine ways to clean contaminated water, specifically by removing metal ion impurities. Many metals can limit humans' ability to safely reuse water, but Findlater and Yan's newly developed process allows them to selectively target problematic metal ions for removal, which can facilitate water recycling and reduce stress on the water supply.

"Working in Texas Tech's Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry has been central to my success as a researcher,” Findlater said. "The department has a large number of talented and driven assistant professors whom I am delighted to call my friends, my colleagues and, my (friendly) competitors.

"These researchers have given rise to a vibrant and dynamic environment within our department that has led to new collaborations and directions for my research program and produced joint publications and upcoming proposal submissions. We are truly fortunate that Texas Tech is able to identify and hire such exceptional faculty members, a reflection of the growing research stature of the university and our department.”

Findlater also received an $8,000 contract from Chevron-Phillips Chemistry.

Michael Latham
Michael Latham

Assistant professor Michael Latham received a Presidents' Collaborative Research Initiative award for a proposal entitled "A Structural Basis for a Form of Mental Retardation” in conjunction with Clinton MacDonald, a professor in the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) Department of Cell Biology and Biochemistry, and Petar Grozdanov, a research assistant professor in the TTUHSC School of Medicine. The total award is $50,000 for one year, but Latham's share is $25,000.

Their goal is to use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy – a technique used to study the structure and motions of molecules – coupled with biochemical and molecular biology techniques to understand how a simple mutation leads to mental retardation. This mutation occurs in a protein found in cells throughout the body, yet the change causes issues in the brain specifically.

"We want to understand how the change affects the structure and function of the protein and leads to problems. In doing so, we will learn more broadly how this protein works,” Latham said.

"I have a great deal of support in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. A prime example is that, with my startup funds, and some luck, I was able to purchase a 600 MHz NMR spectrometer, which is dedicated for the use in my laboratory. Most labs, especially junior ones, do not have such equipment. When we were presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase this instrument, the department and university really went the extra mile to make that happen.”

W. David Nes
W. David Nes

W. David Nes, a Paul Whitfield Horn Professor, received an $881,354 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a three-year study of new anti-amoeba therapeutics.

Nes' research will focus on the mechanistic characterization and development of azole inhibitors and steroidal inhibitors of chokepoint enzymes in ergosterol biosynthesis in Acanthamoeba, the parasitic amoeba responsible for blinding keratitis, and the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria.

Associate professor Dimitri Pappas received a $102,126 CH Foundation gift for his project, "A Microchip Sepsis Detection System for Point of Service Healthcare.”

Based on Pappas' ongoing research into the use of tiny glass-and-plastic chips to detect sepsis, the CH Foundation is funding a pilot clinical study to measure cell activation as a diagnostic indicator. Support from the CH Foundation is enabling Pappas' team to conduct preliminary studies on septic patients, providing critical data they will need to pursue larger-scale funding.

Dimitri Pappas
Dimitri Pappas

"I've been in Chemistry & Biochemistry for 12 years,” Pappas said. "In that time, the department has given me the opportunity to move my research into increasingly complex problems and provided the infrastructure and support to accomplish my goals.”

Professor L. William Poirier received an NSF grant for $498,009 for his three-year project, "CDS&E: Massively Parallel Quantum Dynamics – Computing many accurate quantum states for real molecular applications.”

Computerized molecular simulations are used routinely in many areas such as energy, drug design and nanomaterials because they enable computers to replace expensive and time-consuming laboratory experiments. However, very few molecular simulations incorporate quantum dynamical effects, so Poirier and coworkers are developing the world's first massively parallel exact quantum dynamics code, which may dramatically improve the accuracy, reliability and true predictive power of molecular simulations.

L. William Poirier
L. William Poirier

"The computational facilities on campus have been inordinately helpful,” Poirier said, "both those administered by the High Performance Computing Center as well as the Chemistry Computational Cluster housed in the department.”

Assistant professor Benjamin Wylie received a Maximizing Investigators' Research Award from the NIH for his project "Functional Interplay of Lipid Membrane Components: Activation, Inhibition and Raft Formation.” His lab will receive $1,745,725 over five years.

Wylie's project seeks to decipher how components of biological lipid bilayers interact during biological processes. The unique experimental setup at Texas Tech allows his group to study proteins and lipids in environments found in the human body. The project's first focus is to study how potassium ion channels require their surrounding lipids to properly function and how these channels manipulate the organization and phase properties of the plasma membrane. His team will achieve this task using solid-state NMR (SSNMR) spectroscopy partnered with biophysical approaches, including radioactive assays, electrophysiology, calorimetry and fluorescence measurements.

"Texas Tech has provided me with many unique opportunities,” Wylie said. "As a part of the push for Tier 1 recognition from the Carnegie Foundation, Texas Tech purchased a state-of-the-art SSNMR spectrometer, located in the basement of the Chemistry & Biochemistry building. My group uses and maintains this instrument and the abundance of NMR time allows us the freedom to explore many unique SSNMR techniques.”

Benjamin Wylie
Benjamin Wylie

Mechref received an NIH competing renewal award of his R01 entitled "Sensitive and Quantitative MS-bases Glycomic Mapping Platform.” This award is for $1,151,179 for four years. According to records in the Office of Research Services, this award is the first successful competing renewal Texas Tech has received since records began in 1996.

The proposed research will enable the development of tools for the characterization of protein carbohydrate structures at sensitivity, throughput and level of detail not previously possible. The implementation of these tools will enable researchers to better understand the attributes and biomedical significance of glycans in the development and progression of a wide array of diseases.

Mechref also received an NIH subcontract for $193,781 for five years as part of an R01 entitled "Proximal Tubule Albumin Transport in Disease States” in collaboration with a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He also received a CH Foundation gift for $150,000.

New leadership

Mechref is quick to point out that, although the $5.1 million in funding came through under his tenure as department chair, it's not his doing.

"I cannot take the credit for all of this; it's a department that's only successful through the efforts of everybody,” he said. "We are successful as a department because of our students, our staff and our faculty. Each of us contributes in his or her own way. We are successful as a department; it's a true group effort.

W. Brent Lindquist
W. Brent Lindquist

"Our department is like a puzzle – you won't see the beautiful picture until all the pieces of the puzzle are in place.”

W. Brent Lindquist, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, said he was excited to have Mechref as the department's new chair.

"He brings research-focused leadership, and I look forward to working with him as we continue to grow our research abilities in Chemistry & Biochemistry,” Lindquist said. "I also want to thank Louisa Hope-Weeks for her leadership as the former department chair and her work with our students and faculty.”

In leading the department, Mechref said his goals are aligned with those of the university at large.

"One of the main goals that this department has contributed to in the past, and should continue to contribute to, is to enhance the research reputation of Texas Tech University,” he said. "We need to continue to perform cutting-edge research, and we need to fulfill the strategic research areas being defined by the university.”

In order to be successful, Mechref said, the department must remain true to its three core missions: research, education and service.

"The department is successful as a result of the efforts of the students, the staff and the faculty – in that order,” he said. "Without our smart, hardworking undergraduate and graduate students, we would not be able to fulfill the research component. Without the critical support of our staff, we would not be able to fulfill the educational or research component. And without our faculty, we could not fulfill any of the three components. We gel together as a unit.”

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