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MADE FOR ACADEMIA
Yale University's Alanna Schepartz finds deep satisfaction in both research and mentoring
"Always look ahead," says Alanna Schepartz, when asked what valuable lesson she has learned from her career. Ever since Schepartz first began to think about a career in academics upon graduating from the State University of New York, Albany, she has never looked back.
Born in 1962 in New York City, Schepartz' earliest memory of her interest in experimentation is gleefully playing with miniature--empty--liquor bottles on airplanes while traveling with her parents. In these small bottles she would combine different amounts of salt, pepper, sugar, mustard, ketchup, and anything else she could get her hands on. She recalls always making a huge mess and getting into a ton of trouble. But it was fun. This childhood mixing and blending foreshadowed her later love of working in the lab, experimenting, and not infrequently having things go wrong--although usually not enough to get in trouble!
Schepartz earned her B.S. in organic chemistry from SUNY Albany in 1982. She worked in chemistry professor Shelton Bank's lab from the summer of her sophomore year to her senior year. Until graduation, Schepartz had never considered a career in academia. But there was a send-off party in the lab, and as a going away gift she received a plastic briefcase with "Professor Alanna" hand-stenciled on it. Schepartz says, "I thought it was just a sweet, funny present then, but looking back, it may have been the first time I thought about a career in academics."
Reflecting on that path now that she is a chemistry professor at Yale University, she believes that pursuing a career in academics was the best choice she could have made. "All in all, it's a fabulous life for so many different reasons. It's immensely satisfying, both intellectually and creatively. Plus, it offers a huge amount of personal and professional flexibility," she says. Schepartz is married and has two young children.
Schepartz went on to earn a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Columbia University in 1987 under Ronald Breslow. The year that Schepartz started at Columbia, Jacqueline K. Barton began there as an assistant professor. According to Schepartz, "Barton was then one of the biggest rising stars in chemistry, and there is no question that watching her rise to stardom had a deep and lasting impact on my career choice." When asked about working under Breslow, Schepartz says: "He was--and still is--an incredibly supportive and inspiring mentor. Every day I try to support my students as well as he did."
Upon graduating from Columbia, Schepartz worked for a year and a half as a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow with Peter B. Dervan at California Institute of Technology. As a mentor, Dervan, according to Schepartz, "was fabulous, too. Peter has a remarkable ability to convince you that you can do anything."
When she received an offer from Yale to become an assistant professor, Schepartz didn't need much convincing. In fact, Schepartz is a pioneer at Yale as the first female full professor in any Yale physical science department. She has also led her laboratory into a leadership position in the field of organic chemistry.
What Schepartz values most is her role as a mentor to her graduate students and postdocs. "My role is to help people to go farther and accomplish more than they ever thought imaginable," she says.
Schepartz is immensely proud of her students and their accomplishments. She is supportive of her students' choices and has seen them move on to careers in academia, industry, and consulting. Two of the successful young women chemists highlighted by C&EN not long ago, Mary Kay H. Pflum and Arikha Moses (C&EN, Feb. 11, page 45), are recent graduates from Schepartz' lab.
Schepartz' research program at Yale reflects broad interests within the field of chemical biology. Early accomplishments include engineering a self-assembling ionophore, developing protein affinity cleavage reagents and applying them to protein folding, and accomplishing structure-specific RNA recognition by tethered oligonucleotides.
Currently, Schepartz' lab is interested in how cells effectively use a limited number of proteins to achieve a precisely controlled and robust gene regulatory network, how this network is usurped when cells succumb to viral attack, and how one can use these viral hijacking proteins as inspiration for the design of miniature proteins that mimic (and sometimes surpass) the functional properties of proteins found in nature. In this strategy, called protein grafting, essential recognition groups are grafted onto a small, well-folded protein core, producing a miniature protein that is preorganized for binding another macromolecule. Schepartz' most recent work has shown that miniature proteins can recognize the surfaces of other proteins with high affinity and selectivity and thereby have enormous utility as proteomics tools for research in the postgenome era.
Among her many awards, Schepartz has received the ACS Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in 1995, the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry in 1997, Yale's Dylan Hixon Award for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences in 1999, and the Agnes Fay Morgan Research Award in 2002.
This profile was written by C&EN Editorial Assistant Nick Wafle.
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