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Three prominent scientists speak at UD in April

​Frances Arnold, who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, delivers the 2019 Edward G. Jefferson Lecture in UD’s Mitchell Hall.

The Nobel Prize organization announces the newest recipients of its prestigious awards each year in October and presents the new laureates their medals at an elaborate ceremony in December.

But at UD this year, April has been notable for a kind of Nobel celebration of its own.

In a coincidence of timing, three Nobel laureates are speaking on campus during the month at separate events, providing the opportunity for students, faculty, staff and the public to hear from and interact with some of the world's most renowned scientists.

The laureates are delivering a total of four lectures and are taking other opportunities to meet with members of the University community.  

Frances Arnold, 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Breeding racehorses is an art. Breeders combine science, mathematics and experience to select a sire and mare they think have the best chance at delivering an offspring with the goods to perform against even the toughest competitor.

According to Frances Arnold, breeding enzymes — the biological muscle that helps catalyze complex reactions necessary for life — is a bit like that, too.

Arnold, who delivered the 2019 Edward G. Jefferson Lecture on April 10 at UD, shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering ways to evolve proteins (long chains of amino acids essential for living organisms) to perform functions not found in nature.

It was work she started early in her career as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology that has led to new families of proteins that speed up chemical reactions. These biocatalysts are environmentally friendly, enabling laboratories and companies to make products such as medicines, biofuels and laundry detergent in more sustainable ways.

​Frances Arnold (top right) meets with UD graduate students to talk about big ideas in the future of scientific research.

Today, Arnold is focused on sustainable chemistry, using chemistry and highly efficient biological systems to replace expensive or toxic materials currently used to make things in our daily lives. She's keen to go beyond where nature has gone, too, and she's eager for traveling companions.

Already she's added two elements to the biological periodic table. The rest is up to others.

"We've just scratched the surface," she said. "Look at the biological world with the eyes of a chemist. You, too, can see the inherent racehorse capabilities of proteins and use this simple process to draw these capabilities out."

Prior to her lecture, Arnold met with seven UD doctoral students. After brief introductions she asked, "Everyone wants to know what's the future — that's you. What do you think is the most exciting area of science?"

At first the room was quiet. This was a Nobel laureate asking, after all. But slowly an engaging conversation emerged. The answers were as varied as their voices: Immunology. Personalized medicine. Big data. Genome editing. Epigenetics.

"The advent of wearable technology that can be accessible to a lot of different people offers ways for preventative, rather than treatment-based, medicine," said Danielle Valcourt, who is working on engineering nanoparticles to treat triple-negative breast cancer as part of Assistant Professor Emily Day's biomedical engineering lab.

"With wearables you can have better information tracking, and with big data you can start to see patterns in things like blood pressure that might drive early intervention."

Wally Drake pointed to the potential use of CRISPR technology, specially designed strands of DNA some call "molecular scissors," to enable scientists to edit cell lines in order to add immunity against genetic diseases. Drake works with Assistant Professor Catherine Grimes in the chemistry and biochemistry department.

"Talk about preventative medicine. That's about the earliest preventative stage, to use CRISPR to edit out the gene," added his lab colleague Elizabeth D'Ambrosio.

Arnold encouraged the students to look across disciplines and consider ways to combine powerful new technologies — data analysis, artificial intelligence, machine learning — to solve problems.

An elected member of all three National Academies (science, engineering and medicine), Arnold speaks from experience. Her research group is a mix of chemists, engineers and computer scientists. "It helps to change fields a lot," she said.

To read more about Arnold's lecture, see this article.

Joseph H. Taylor Jr., 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics

​Joseph Taylor discovered a new type of orbiting neutron star in 1974.

Picture a bucket half filled with water. A single raindrop falls in.


That's one way the sound was described after scientists directly detected gravitational waves for the first time in 2015 — exactly a century after Albert Einstein had predicted these ripples in the space-time fabric of the universe.

Researchers converted the signal from its initial recording as a light pattern into sound. They said it sounded like a heartbeat or, using a different frequency, a chirp, and they dubbed it "gravity's music."

The path that led from 1915, when Einstein presented his theory, to the detection by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) was filled with twists and turns, some dead ends and countless scientific discoveries, said Joseph Taylor, professor emeritus at Princeton University. Among those critical discoveries was one he made in 1974 that earned him the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics.

On Wednesday, April 24, Taylor will trace that 100-year journey from theory to detection for an audience at UD.

His talk, "From Einstein's Theory to Gravity's Chirp," will be given at 7:30 p.m. in Clayton Hall on UD's Newark campus. Designed for a general-interest audience, the Harcourt Vernon Lecture is sponsored by the Mount Cuba Astronomical Observatory in Greenville, Delaware, in partnership with the University's Delaware Asteroseismic Research Center and the Mount Cuba Foundation.

The lecture is free and open to the public, but space is limited; please register at this website.

Much of Taylor's lecture will concern his Nobel Prize-winning discovery, with research student and co-laureate Russell Hulse, of a new type of orbiting pulsar. Pulsars, which are rotating neutron stars that emit pulses of radiation at regular intervals, are observed on Earth as beams of light.

Using a radio telescope, Taylor and Hulse searched for pulsars and in 1974 discovered the first binary pair orbiting each other. Studying the pair over the next several years, scientists found indirect proof of the existence of gravitational waves as predicted by Einstein.

When LIGO detected those waves in 2015, it was the final proof that binary black holes exist and can merge, physicists said.

Taylor was a research fellow at Harvard and taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, before joining the Princeton faculty in 1980. He is co-author of the book Pulsars. His awards, in addition to the Nobel Prize, include a MacArthur Fellowship, the Wolf Prize and the Einstein Prize.

Craig C. Mello, 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

​Craig Mello discovered a mechanism that can silence a gene's expression.

In much the same way that we need specific pieces of information among the vast amounts of data on the internet, each of our cells uses only a small fraction of the 30,000 genes that make up the human genome.

The key to the selection process in both cases? A good search engine.

In the case of cells, that search engine is known as RNA interference, or RNAi, a mechanism that can "silence" the expression of a particular gene. Its discovery in 1998 earned Craig C. Mello and Andrew Fire the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Mello, now an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a faculty researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, will be at UD April 23-24 to deliver two talks on different subjects related to scientific research.

On Tuesday, April 23, Mello will give the 2019 Arnold Clark Lecture in the Department of Biological Sciences. The talk, which is free and open to the public, begins at 5 p.m. in the Wolf Hall auditorium and will be followed by a reception.

In the lecture, "RNA-Guided Inheritance in C. elegans," Mello will discuss the research his lab does using the nematode C. elegans as a model system to study gene silencing. Since his 1998 discovery, RNAi has been widely used in basic science as a method to study the function of genes and as a research tool in biology and biomedicine.

On Wednesday, April 24, Mello will be the keynote speaker at the inaugural Delaware Life Science Forum, an event designed to bring together UD research scientists — students, faculty, staff and postdocs — with industry scientists and entrepreneurs.

Mello's talk at that event will focus on the use of basic science findings to design new therapeutics.

The forum will be held from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the STAR Tower Audion on UD's STAR campus. Registration, which includes lunch, is $50 for industry participants, $25 for those from academia and $15 for postdocs and students. Register at this website.

Mello is the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and co-founder of the RNA Therapeutics Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In his role with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute he is chair of the national advisory committee that awards the prestigious Pew Biomedical Scholars Award. During his visit to UD, Mellor plans to meet with the University's three Pew Scholars: Catherine Grimes, April Kloxin and Salil Lachke.

 Article by Karen Roberts and Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Joseph Taylor and Craig Mello

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​Three Nobel laureates are visiting UD in April, delivering separate lectures focused on research and interacting with students, faculty, staff and the community.

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Nobel laureates visit
  • Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • 102 Brown Laboratory
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-1247
  • Undergraduate Program Inquiries 302-831-2465