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CAS Prof Wins Novartis Award

Chemist’s research sheds (visible) light on organic compounds

| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson

Corey Stephenson, a CAS assistant professor of chemistry, is one of only two recipients worldwide of a Novartis Early Career Award in Organic Chemistry. Photo courtesy of Stephenson

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis has presented an Early Career Award in Organic Chemistry to Corey R. J. Stephenson, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of chemistry. The three-year unrestricted grant will help Stephenson and his team of postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students pursue their work on using visible light to trigger reactions leading to the environmentally safe production of organic molecules that play a role in targeting leukemia cells and fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The world’s second largest pharmaceutical company, Novartis manufactures medicines, vaccines, consumer health products, and diagnostic tools. Its Early Career Award is given each year to only two scientists worldwide. “It’s a really great recognition of hard work by my students and postdocs, who are very dedicated,” says Stephenson, whose laboratory team comprises nine graduate students, two postdoctoral fellows, and six undergraduates. Since joining the chemistry department in 2007, Stephenson has emerged as a leader in the field of synthetic organic chemistry known as visible-light activated redox chemistry.

“One of the advantages of using visible light is that most organic compounds don’t absorb it, and we’re always trying to find ways to make reactions in which you selectively change one part of a compound without affecting the rest of the molecule,” says Stephenson, likening the process to the way plants harness visible light for photosynthesis: “We use light to drive a chemical reaction pretty much like a plant would do.” The compounds synthesized in Stephenson’s lab are typically natural ones isolated from fungi and bacteria, potentially therapeutic products that could have applications for treating cancer or infection.

The Novartis award, presented to organic chemists who are in the first decade of an academic appointment, includes invitations to several Novartis sites around the world. “Corey’s work that earned him the Novartis Early Career Award is one more example of the leading-edge science that is going on in the BU department of chemistry, and indeed, across the natural sciences here,” says Virgina Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences. “I am especially excited to witness our younger faculty racking up the awards and recognition in these challenging times.”

Stephenson earned a doctorate in 2004 from the University of Pittsburgh and did postdoctoral studies at ETH Zurich. Among his other awards are a National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2011, a Young Investigator Award from Amgen in 2011, and a Boehringer-Ingelheim New Investigator Award in 2010. He was named an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation research fellow for 2011–2102.

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