Chemistry Professor Aaron Leconte Earns Cottrell Scholar Award

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Professor Aaron Leconte

Claremont, Calif. (February 29, 2016)—Assistant Professor of Chemistry Aaron Leconte has received a three-year, $100,000 Cottrell Scholar award from Research Corporation for Science Advancement. The Cottrell Scholar program recognizes top early-career academic scientists and supports both research and teaching. Leconte is one of 24 Cottrell Scholars from across the country selected in 2016. He teaches at Pitzer, Claremont McKenna and Scripps Colleges’ W.M. Keck Science Department.

The award will support Leconte’s research into a protein critical to the creation of bioluminescence that makes certain living organisms—from bacteria to fireflies—light up. The bioluminescence of the North American firefly (Photinus pyralis) stems from a chemical reaction triggered by a specific protein, luciferase. This protein can be extracted from the firefly and used by scientists to track and record biological events and processes to better understand human maladies such as cancer and bacterial infections.

“Bioluminescence is very useful, but it could definitely be improved to create even more sensitive, precise and reliable imaging techniques,” Leconte said. “There is a long list of enzyme properties that scientists would love to be able to tweak, but proteins are incredibly complex machines. We are working hard to think creatively about how to best tune these proteins to the needs of the field.”

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Professor Leconte’s lab uses high throughput techniques to characterize thousands of enzymes to identify the most useful proteins.

The grant supports both Leconte’s luciferase research project, Biochemical Characterization and Engineering of Luciferases through Statistical Coupling Analysis,” and the integration of that research into the undergraduate classroom. While Leconte and research assistants are working on protein engineering in the lab, introductory chemistry students will conduct foundational biochemical experiments to better understand the enzyme. The program gives first-year undergraduate students the chance to undertake hands-on, cutting-edge research and work with established scientists, jumpstarting the research careers of young scientists.

This is the first year that the Cottrell Scholar Award has been awarded to faculty from primarily undergraduate institutions; Leconte is one of eight faculty members from primarily undergraduate institutions to be awarded a Cottrell Scholar Award, according to the W.M. Keck Science Department.

Aaron Leconte joined the W.M. Keck Science Department faculty in 2012. He has received numerous awards, including the Cottrell College Science Award (2014) and the Ruth L. Kirchstein National Research Service Award (2010) during his postdoctoral work at Harvard University.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement is a foundation providing catalytic and opportunistic funding for innovative scientific research and the development of academic scientists advancing American competitiveness in science and technology. The Cottrell Scholar program develops outstanding teacher-scholars who are recognized by their scientific communities for the quality and innovation of their research programs and their academic leadership skills.

About Pitzer College

Pitzer College is a nationally top-ranked undergraduate liberal arts and sciences institution. A member of The Claremont Colleges, Pitzer offers a distinctive approach to a liberal arts education by linking intellectual inquiry with interdisciplinary studies, cultural immersion, social responsibility and community involvement. For more information, please visit www.pitzer.edu.

About the W.M. Keck Science Department

The W.M. Keck Science Department is the interdisciplinary home to all biology, chemistry, and physics faculty for Pitzer, Claremont McKenna and Scripps colleges. The department is administered cooperatively and is housed within an 81,000-square-foot center located at the intersection of the three colleges. The department offers 13 discrete degree options, including dual-degree programs in partnership with schools of engineering and majors in conjunction with disciplines outside the sciences. The W.M. Keck Science Department provides comprehensive, interdisciplinary instruction in small class settings and numerous opportunities for students to conduct research.

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