Houston scientist named as rising star in chemistry

02/04/04

Welch Foundation names Ma 2004 Hackerman Award Recipient

Does the structure of something determine its function, or is it the other way around? What exactly is the relationship between structure and function, and why is it important to understand?

Using biochemistry, Jianpeng Ma, assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University, has shed some light on these fundamental questions. The Welch Foundation recognizes his groundbreaking approach with the 2004 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research.

The Welch Foundation, one of the nation's oldest and largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry, presents the $100,000 award annually to honor young, up-and-coming scientists at Texas institutions. Recipients are recognized for expanding the frontiers of chemistry through their innovative research endeavors.

Created in 2001, the award pays tribute to Norman Hackerman, President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Rice and long-time chairman of the Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board. The third recipient of the award, Dr. Ma received a $100,000 check, certificate and crystal sculpture at a luncheon Tuesday at the Texas Medical Center.

"Dr. Ma is an outstanding research chemist as well as a dedicated educator," said Foundation Chairman Richard J. V. Johnson. "He is a leader in his field and his persistence and diligence are an inspiration to his colleagues and students alike."

Dr. Ma is fascinated by the structure-function relationship of biological molecules. He uses computer simulation as one tool to explore this connection. One of his major breakthroughs occurred when he found a way to simulate protein motion without knowing the exact coordinates and amino-acid sequences of protein structures. His research will help scientists better understand the chemical basis of causes for diseases.

"Dr. Ma sets broad boundaries and is not afraid to delve into complex research problems," said Dr. Hackerman. "He is able to see connections that other people would overlook and his innovative methods for solving such problems have allowed him to glean useful information that will further our fundamental understanding of chemistry."

"I am extremely honored to receive this prestigious award. It is especially meaningful since I received my first grant in Texas from The Welch Foundation, which has undoubtedly played a vital role in my career and allowed me to carry out much of my research," said Dr. Ma. "I am excited about the challenges that lie ahead and hope I can live up to the expectation of the award."

Born in China, Dr. Ma was influenced by his father, a mechanical engineer, and mother, a chemist. He received his undergraduate degree in physical chemistry at Fudan University in Shanghai in 1985 and a doctorate in chemistry from Boston University in 1996. He completed post-doctoral work at Harvard University in 2000.

As a member of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Baylor College of Medicine and the department of bioengineering at Rice University, he conducts research and teaches.

"Dr. Ma truly is a rising star in the state of Texas," said Salih J. Wakil, chairman of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Baylor College of Medicine. "His outstanding contributions to so many aspects of structural biology will undoubtedly have a long-term impact on the research of chemistry and biochemistry."

"It is my opinion that Dr. Ma is the most outstanding young investigator in the field of chemical research in Texas," added Nobel laureate Richard E. Smalley, University Professor, the Gene and Norman Hackerman Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at Rice University. "He is very deserving of the recognition of the Hackerman Award."

The Houston-based Welch Foundation, founded in 1954, has provided almost $500 million in support of science. In addition to the Hackerman Award, its endeavors are focused primarily on chemical research in Texas, including a research grant program; an annual research conference; grants to chemistry departments at small and medium-sized educational institutions in the state; funding of 42 academic chairs in chemistry; and provides support at Texas universities for a visiting lecture series by prominent chemists and a summer scholar research program for high school students. The Foundation also bestows the annual Welch Award in Chemistry to honor chemists across the globe for their lifetime contributions to basic research.

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