Lisa Olshansky selected for DOE Early Career Award


Professor Lisa Olshansky is one of 83 early career scientists from across the nation who have been chosen by the U.S. Department of Energy to receive Early Career Research Program awards.

The program will distribute $110 million in funding to these scientists for research covering a wide range of topics, from holography to particle accelerators. This year’s awardees represent 47 universities and 13 National Labs in 29 states. The awards are part of the DOE’s long-standing efforts to develop the next generation of STEM leaders who will solidify America’s role as the driver of science and innovation around the world. 

“Supporting America’s scientists and researchers early in their careers will ensure the U.S. remains at the forefront of scientific discovery and develops the solutions to our most pressing challenges,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “The funding will allow the recipients the freedom to find the answers to some of the most complex questions as they establish themselves as experts in their fields.” 

Olshansky will use the DOE funding to research a new approach to the efficient conversion of sunlight into chemical potential energy, and ultimately into liquid fuels.

"I am thrilled to have been selected for a DOE Early Career Award," said Olshansky, whose DOE project is inspired by ideas Olshansky began thinking about as a graduate student studying the enzyme ribonucleotide reductase.

"The ribonucleotide reductase enzyme performs an amazing multi-step proton-coupled electron transfer reaction to catalyze the biosynthesis of DNA building blocks. However, even though these individual reaction steps are fast, the overall reaction rate is set by slow macroscopic structural changes in the protein housing them," Olshansky explained. "It turns out, this scenario is common among metalloenzymes - slow protein structural changes gate fast electron transfer steps."

Olshansky does not believe that commonality is a coincidence and hypothesizes that they have evolved to use structure to control reactivity because it represents an energetically efficient pathway to drive kinetically and thermodynamically challenging reactions.

"My research program is focused on testing this hypothesis in simple molecular and artificial systems, and then taking advantage of it in a variety of real-world applications such as biomedical imaging and drug delivery, solar energy conversion, and catalysis," she said. "In the DOE funded work, we are using light to trigger structural changes about a bound metal ion by pre-organizing the system for fast electron transfer. This approach applies the fundamental parameters of electron transfer theory in reverse and mimics the way that I think many biological-electron transfer systems operate. We intend to use these systems to demonstrate a new approach to the efficient conversion of sunlight into chemical potential energy, and ultimately into liquid fuels."

Funding for the awards is part of the DOE Office of Science’s Early Career Research Program, which bolsters the nation’s scientific workforce by supporting exceptional researchers at the outset of their careers, when many scientists do their most formative work. Since its inception in 2010, the Early Career Research Program has made 785 awards, with 508 awards to university researchers and 277 awards to National Lab researchers.


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