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Distefano receives Distinguished McKnight University Professorship

Professor Mark Distefano has received the University of Minnesota's 2011 Distinguished McKnight University Professorship. He is one of four university professors to receive the prestigious honor this year.

The purpose of the professorship is to recognize and reward the university's most outstanding mid-career faculty members. Recipients are honored with the title Distinguished McKnight University Professor, which they hold for as long as they remain at the University of Minnesota, and receive a grant of $100,000 that can be used to support their scholarly activities.

Professor Distefano was chosen based on the following criteria: the level of distinction and prestige that his scholarly work brings to the university; the merit of his achievements and the potential for greater attainment in the field; the dimension of his national or international reputation, including leadership efforts in interdisciplinary or collaborative initiatives; the extent to which his career has flourished at Minnesota and his work and reputation are identified with Minnesota; the quality of his teaching and advising; and his contributions to the wider community.

He excels in all of those areas. An excerpt from his nomination letter reads: "Mark Distefano is a world-renowned scholar at the interface of chemistry and biology. He has an outstanding record of publication, funding, and scientific leadership that places him at the top of his field. His career trajectory is on a sharp upward slope. . . ."

Distefano has been a professor in the Department of Chemistry since 1992. This year, he was named the department's Merck Professor of Chemistry. He teaches chemical biology and organic chemistry. He is an outstanding teacher, routinely receiving high evaluations from his students, developing innovative undergraduate and graduate courses, serving as an adviser, and earning top university teaching honors, including the the Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education, and the George W. Taylor/College of Science & Engineering Alumni Society Award for Distinguished Teaching. His honors have earned him induction into the university's Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Distefano's research is at the interface of chemistry and biology, focusing on understanding how proteins accelerate chemical reactions and how proteins recognize other molecules with high specificity, which is useful for drug design and biotechnology applications. He is a world leader in the design of protein-based catalysts where synthetic molecules are linked to protein structures found in nature. He was the first researcher in the field of semisynthetic enzymes to obtain a three-dimensional structure of such an enzyme. His work in a different area of protein chemistry, prenylation, is providing important clues for how to design more effective anti-cancer compounds. He has used his knowledge of protein prenylation to develop a new method for using enzymes to modify proteins, which has tremendous implications for a host of applications in biotechnology and nanoscience.

Distefano's research papers have been published in some of the top scientific journals, including the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Journal of Organic Chemistry, and Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. His papers have been cited more than 1,800 times. Internationally, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in his field. He has been invited to present 106 seminars plus contributing to another 91 presentations at a number of top universities in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

An outstanding communicator, Distefano has secured impressive levels of funding for his research group, totaling $6.7 million. He is the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on four National Institute of Health grants, and is co-principal investigator on a United State Department of Agriculture grant.

His exciting, interdisciplinary research attracts a number of students. Under his tutelage, he has graduated 15 students with their doctorates and eight students with their master's degrees, and has overseen eight postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists. He also mentors undergraduate students, getting them involved in research, guiding them through having research articles published, and helping them get into the top graduate programs in the country.

In addition, Distefano has played several key leadership roles in the Department of Chemistry, is involved on a number of committees outside of the department, and has served on national committees for organizations such as the National Institute of Health and American Chemical Society.

Highly regarded by his peers, one of Distefano's supporters wrote: "Professor Mark Distefano is a superb bioorganic chemist who is also a committed teacher and mentor, a valued colleague, and a well-respected citizen of the biological chemistry community. . . . There is no question that Mark is deserving of the distinction of Distinguished McKnight University Professor."

Of the 69 professorships awarded by the university thus far, the Department of Chemistry holds 11—more than any other department. Current faculty members who also have received this high distinction include George Barany, Christopher Cramer, Timothy Lodge, Marc Hillmyer, J. Ilja Siepmann, Andreas Stein, and William Tolman.

Photos by Andria Peters.