Chemist Robert F. Pasternack of Swarthmore, Penn., will be honored April 3 by the world's largest scientific society for his achievements in chemical research using primarily undergraduate students in his laboratory. He will receive the 2001 Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in San Diego.
"Participating in research as a student is really an opportunity to explore, to learn something about yourself as well as the work," said Pasternack, who is Edmund Allen professor of chemistry at Swarthmore College, Penn. "My role is to help students realize their own potential."
Over 50 undergraduate students at Swarthmore and at Ithaca College, where he taught from 1963 to 1982, have been authors with Pasternack of published research.
Pasternack has studied porphyrins, a broad class in nature that includes chlorophyll, respiratory proteins, and a variety of other molecules. "Porphyrins have a number of properties that are very attractive for research and as pharmacological agents," he said, including an ability to interact with DNA, the body's genetic code.
Ultimately, Pasternack and his student researchers discovered that porphyrins interacting with DNA show a unique signature in certain energy fields, a technique called spectroscopy.
"We also discovered we could induce certain porphyrins, under the right conditions, to come out of their hiding places in DNA and form organized assemblies," with DNA acting as a sort of template, he said. The work led to a new form of spectroscopy called resonance light scattering.
Detecting aggregates and their shape, as well as understanding how they form, has implications for both health and disease, said Pasternack. Formation of muscle fibers requires aggregation, for example; while underlying malaria and Alzheimer's disease are harmful clumps of proteins.