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Most universities have a simple yet powerful way to attract top academic talent and add luster to their reputations. It’s the EPC factor—endowed professorships and chairs, which can profoundly influence the long-term fortunes of an institution. Stand back...these powerhouses are multiplying across campus.

Adventurous Minds

Bo Schwerin

  Arthur D. Hellman

In a spacious room in the Rayburn House Office Building, just south of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., a Congressional hearing is under way on a rare aspect of constitutional function. From their elevated seats behind the polished, wood-paneled terrace at the front of the room, beneath the elegant drape of an American flag, members of the House of Representatives listen intently to the opinion of an expert witness. The proceedings are conducted with a calm belying their importance; members of Congress have gathered today to consider the possible impeachment of a federal judge for high crimes and misdemeanors.

An expert witness has been called to give background testimony and provide some context for the larger, complex issues in play. He isn’t unnerved by the spotlight, though he is concerned about conveying, during his five-minute appearance, the important parts of his previously submitted 40-page statement. Fortunately, the expert—Pitt law professor Arthur D. Hellman—has had some practice in making his point.

Hellman is something of a veteran of Congressional hearings. He’s provided testimony before committees of the Senate and the House. He’s a familiar face to members of the Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property—part of the House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary—to whom he is offering his testimony today. In fact, there aren’t many law professors who have testified before Congress on as many different judiciary subjects as Hellman. It’s just one reason that he was recently appointed as Pitt’s Sally Ann Semenko Endowed Chair and Professor in the School of Law, a prestigious position intended to honor and advance Hellman’s work.

This is among 90 new endowed chairs and professorships established by funds raised so far during Pitt’s capital campaign. Whether a chair or a professorship, these positions equally represent an esteemed honor in the academic world. They attract and retain top-flight scholars and researchers to the University, enabling Pitt to compete with other leading universities for the world’s finest talent.

“Our ability to compete with the very best universities for the very best faculty depends on our having these chairs and professorships. They are key to improving the University in a significant way,” says Pitt Provost Jim Maher, who is also senior vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Though Hellman has been offering his expertise to Congress for some time, he has been offering it to Pitt law students even longer. He joined the law faculty in 1975. He likens working with lawmakers to teaching and scholarship.

“You’re expected to know your subject and be able to present it clearly to people who aren’t experts,” he says. He thinks his popularity on Capitol Hill has to do with his efforts to offer solutions rather than just identify problems. “When you’re working with Congress, you have to give them an answer. They want solutions. In a way, it’s not a natural academic way of looking at things. An academic may think, ‘If this article doesn’t solve the problem, maybe the next one will,’or maybe you write a book or a monograph. But Congress needs something that it can consider today.”

Hellman has done what he can to provide just that. From his time as deputy executive director of the Commission on Revision of the Federal Court Appellate System (otherwise known as the Hruska Commission) to his 1999–2001 stint as the only academic on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Evaluation Committee, he has gained a substantial reputation for giving useful guidance to Congress and the courts. He was publicly recognized by leading members of the House’s judiciary committee for helping to draft the 2002 Judicial Improvements Act—a complex task.

“You might start to change some language in a way that seems innocuous, but there may be a history behind it in court decisions or practice. If you don’t watch out, you’ll be changing things you don’t intend to change. That’s where the expertise comes in,” he says.

Now widely considered the leading authority on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—the country’s largest federal appellate court—Hellman is deepening his study of judicial institutions and the workings of precedent in law. He tracks legal issues as they percolate through the levels of courts, studying the relations between courts, between courts and lawyers, and between Congress and the courts, developing an understanding of how precedent—previous court rulings—influences these relations and vice versa.

Which is why it’s not surprising that, when back in the stately hearing room, the subcommittee chairman asks, “What precedents are you aware of, historical precedents, that might apply to this case at hand?” Hellman, as usual, has an answer. He suggests the subcommittee wait for the findings of a separate judicial investigation before proceeding further, because he believes the current evidence against the judge isn’t adequate for impeachment. (The subcommittee ultimately followed this course of action. The outcome is still pending.)

Dennis Curran (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo by Lake Fong)  

Precedent isn’t something that matters too much to Dennis Curran. Granted, he’s not involved in law—he’s Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry and Bayer Professor, another endowed faculty position established during Pitt’s initial $1 billion drive—but what
concerns Curran much more is the unprecedented.

Curran works with synthesis, a field of chemistry that creates organic compounds and helps to discover and produce medications.

“Most drugs consist of small organic molecules,” Curran says. “New drugs are first discovered by organic chemists who make them, characterize them, and send them on for testing. Once you’ve discovered a drug, you have to be able to make it quickly, efficiently, and cheaply.”

Quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. That was the problem Curran faced when thinking of new, unprecedented ways to approach synthesis: There was little quick, efficient, or cheap about the process. “First, you have to do a reaction,” he says. “You have to put something in with the starting material to effect the reaction, like a reagent or a catalyst. But even if your reaction works, and you make your product in perfect yield, you still always have to separate something out to get your pure product.”

For an approximation of how difficult the process is, imagine mixing a vat of Cheerios with a vat of multicolored Fruit Loops and then having to separate out only the red Fruit Loops—by hand. This costly delay, in turn, hampers the speed with which new compounds can be discovered and created.

“The drug-discovery process is like a funnel,” says Curran. “If you don’t keep putting more and more things in at the top, nothing is going to come out of the bottom.”

Fortunately for Curran, he’s not only a researcher, but a teacher as well. The genesis of a solution came from Curran’s synthesis of research with teaching undergraduate organic chemistry. The teaching forced him to re-envision the fundamentals of complex processes so that he could explain them in terms of basic concepts and answer unanticipated questions.

“If I had only done research, and never teaching, I probably would have never come up with what is now the most important research theme in our group,” says Curran.

One of the things he teaches his students is the unusual properties of a class of molecules called fluorocarbons.

“In chemical terms,” he says, “they are hard and nonpolarizable. They don’t mix with organic compounds. One day it occurred to us, why don’t we use these properties in some way? We knew about these unusual properties, but nobody really used them in synthesis.”

Inspired by this realization, Curran’s team developed a method of using fluorocarbons to “tag” certain compounds during the synthesis process, allowing for easy separation. Prior to synthesis, a fluorous tag is put on a selected compound of interest. After the reaction—which alters the compound, along with others in the mix—the chemist can then easily identify and separate the tagged components from the untagged. It’s a system that remarkably speeds up the usually tedious process of molecular separation and synthesis, meaning that scientists can more rapidly create and test far more compounds with the potential to become life-saving drugs.

Though drug development is a long process, Curran is already seeing some results, particularly in the synthesis of antitumor agents known as camptothecins. One such compound synthesized by Curran’s lab is currently in clinical trials. In addition, Curran’s advances in camptothecin development and fluorous-tagged chemistry have resulted in commercial initiatives: the spinoff company Fluorous Technologies and a project licensing the antitumor agent to an established company. This is the lab-to-market path of future life-saving drugs, and it’s people like Curran—with the creativity, expertise, patience, and reputation for innovation—who help to make it happen. Those are the qualities that endowed professorships gather, grow, and extend.

  Angela Gronenborn (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review photo by Justin Merriman)

It’s those traits that Angela Gronenborn exhibits as well, and she’s eager to share her knowledge and enthusiasm with others. Gronenborn—who is the Rosalind Franklin Professor and Chair of Pitt’s Department of Structural Biology—says the University needs as many “adventurous minds” as it can get.

In fact, that’s a fitting description for Gronenborn herself. At this moment, she is exploring a protein in her mind. Mentally, she floats through a constellation of atoms, knowing the location of each as surely as she knows the layout of her own basement lab in Pitt’s new Biomedical Science Tower 3 (BST3). “A flat surface is incomprehensible to me,” she says. “Everything is acutely three-dimensional.” This intense awareness of spatial relationships comes from years of experience as a structural biologist focusing on the most minute of architectures. It not only means she never gets lost in Pittsburgh’s mazy streets, but also that she can navigate a molecular map in the same way most people navigate familiar neighborhood roads.

“We’re trying to get the position of every atom in a molecule, be that a protein, a nucleic acid, or some other complex within a cell,” she says. “This allows you to look at the molecule like a building. If you want to know how many floors there are, and who lives on each floor, you need to look inside.”

To look inside, Gronenborn uses magnets. Massive magnets. As she descends the aluminum spiral staircase into her cavernous BST3 lab, spacious as an airplane hangar, she listens for the rhythmic electronic chirping that tells her all is well with her prized possessions. They look like upright gas tanks of varying size: a barrel-size baby bear, a momma bear twice as big, and a newly arrived papa bear—the largest such magnet available—squatting heavily in its own pit. Inside each tank, cooled to sub-zero temperatures, are coiled magnets that generate powerful magnetic fields. Using these magnets and a process called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), Gronenborn can play the role of the Rand McNally of molecular mapping.

Gronenborn is a recognized world leader in NMR, and a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The process, similar to the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used frequently in medicine, involves placing a material sample within the giant magnet. Once placed in the magnetic field, the molecule’s atoms—each of which, Gronenborn says, can be thought of as a tiny magnet—are pulled into a particular alignment. A radio frequency is then used to perturb the atoms, shifting them out of place. Gradually the atoms return to their original places, and the energy released in the process can be read to get structural information. The result: an atom-by-atom, three-dimensional digital map of a molecule. And like all maps, these have a particular use.

“If you want to know how one protein interacts with another protein, you need to know its shape, the location of its binding sites,” says Gronenborn. This knowledge not only provides information on cellular processes at the molecular level, but it also gives immense insight for medical development.

Before coming to Pitt from the National Institutes of Health a few years ago, Gronenborn determined the structure of a protein that has potent anti-HIV properties—it inhibits the virus that causes AIDS. By mapping the protein’s structure, she was able to see that the protein binds to special sugars on the virus, preventing it from attaching to and infecting a cell.

“We started out knowing nothing about this molecule that came from a lab doing routine screening,” Gronenborn says. “Now what we’re doing is looking at a number of other molecules that also have similar sugar-binding abilities. When we determine the structures of these molecules, we can then see whether they can be developed into anti-HIV or antiviral agents.” Ultimately, she expects, technology will allow for the mapping of an entire cell at the atomic level. And not just a static model, but a dynamic representation.

“If you think of a building or a city, people move around within it,” she says. “That kind of activity is what I think we will be able to see.”

Adventurous minds. Gronenborn is perfectly willing to think ahead into the unforeseeable future and project her beliefs in the capabilities of scientific rigor and hard work onto that vast blank screen. She sees big leaps in progress as the result of a synthesis of thought among experts in a wide array of fields.

“Sometimes you get into a conversation with a different scientist, and there’s a spark of a crazy idea that will lead to the next jump in what you can do,” she says. She sees, throughout the University, the elements for this kind of collaboration coming together in greater and greater numbers.

This synergy of talent, expertise, creativity, and resourcefulness creates benefits far more vast than would be possible with any single individual, lab, or classroom setting. As the number of chairs and professorships increases, so does the powerful effect across many disciplines.

Other new examples of these positions on campus include the Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg University Chair, the Dr. Helen S. Faison Chair in Urban Education, the Giant Eagle Chair in Cancer Genetics, the Jonas Chair in German Studies, and the Olofson Chair at the Katz Graduate School of Business. As respected worldwide experts, endowed chairs and professors multiply the possibilities for extraordinary outcomes at the University of Pittsburgh in research, teaching, and the public good.

“We’re ambitious at the University of Pittsburgh, and we want to continue to move forward, higher and higher, in the ranks of the very best universities. To do that, we need to recruit and retain the very best faculty available,” says Provost Maher.

The competition is fierce, and the EPC factor is key to scaling the heights among the nation’s leading universities.



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