Science2006:Feel the Power

Issue Date: 
October 2, 2006


Four scientists doing groundbreaking research in areas ranging from brain development to alternative fuel sources will give plenary lectures in Pitt’s Alumni Hall Auditorium during Science2006: Feel the Power, the University’s sixth annual festival of scientific discovery, Oct. 5-6.

The free, public program also will include spotlight sessions presented by scientists from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, a technology showcase highlighting recent inventions now available for licensing, a career development workshop for emerging scientists, and various networking and social events.

“The power of science thrives at the University of Pittsburgh and throughout the region,” said Arthur S. Levine, Pitt senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine. “Science2006 will illustrate how researchers are using this power to explore the pivotal biological process of transcription, mine vast data resources, prepare for pandemics in an age of uncertainty, pioneer the frontiers of the human brain, investigate alternative energy sources, and understand the various other topics comprising this year’s program—and to creatively apply their findings for society’s benefit.”

James V. Maher, Pitt provost and senior vice chancellor, said, “Science2006 will clearly celebrate the University of Pittsburgh’s role as a scientific leader, demonstrate once again the mutually beneficial collaboration between researchers at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, and incorporate presentations by scientists from local industry. One of our most important goals for this event each year is to illustrate the promise that scientific discovery holds for the region’s economic development in the near term as well as in years to come.”

A complete schedule of Science2006 events and registration information is available at

Following are details on the plenary lectures.

Dickson Prize in Medicine Lecture, “Chromatin and Transcription”

Roger D. Kornberg, Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor of Medicine and professor of structural biology, Stanford University
Oct. 5, 11 a.m.

Kornberg’s presentation will be based on his research on various components of transcription, the process by which the genetic information encoded in DNA is transferred to the cellular assembly mechanism responsible for protein synthesis. Breakthroughs such as the discovery of the nucleosome—the unit into which the DNA double helix and associated proteins called histones are compressed to fit within a cell’s nucleus—have resulted from Kornberg’s work, which has greatly enhanced the understanding of the transcription process and how it is regulated.

Further investigation of the transcription machinery’s structure at the molecular level is the focus of Kornberg’s current research, along with the structure and function of chromatin, the DNA-protein complex found in the nucleus, and its role in the transcription process.

“You can’t understand a machine if you don’t know the place of all the pieces, and our discoveries have helped locate the parts of the machine that makes RNA,” Kornberg said. “Our work has accomplished two things—first, an understanding at the atomic level of how transcription occurs and, second, a description of how it is regulated.”

Kornberg, the inaugural Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor in Medicine at Stanford, completed his undergraduate education in chemistry at Harvard University and earned his doctorate at Stanford. In 1978, after a postdoctoral fellowship in Cambridge, England, and a brief tenure in the biological chemistry department at Harvard Medical School, Kornberg returned to Stanford, where he chaired the Department of Structural Biology from 1984 until 1992. He has held his current post since 2003.

The Dickson Prize in Medicine, the most prestigious award presented by Pitt’s School of Medicine, recognizes individuals who have made significant, progressive contributions to the field of medicine. Established in 1969 by the estates of Joseph Z. Dickson, M.D., and his wife, Agnes Fischer Dickson, the prize consists of a bronze medal and an award of $50,000.

Mellon Lecture, “Dynamic Interplay Between Nature and Nurture in Brain Development”

Carla J. Shatz, Nathan Marsh Pusey Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurobiology, Harvard University Medical School Oct. 5, 4 p.m.

Shatz will discuss how the spontaneous waves of activity generated by certain cells in a developing fetus can initiate the formation of cellular patterns that provide the foundation for sensory perception, which is then further refined after birth by the input of external signals and experience.

Much of Shatz’s work has focused on the human visual system. Most recently, she investigated how the visual system is shaped by experience over time, determining that visual deprivation during the “critical period,” which lasts roughly from the time a child is nine months old until age 2, can result not only in undeveloped vision but also in diminished activity in genes that respond to visual input.
Since 2000, Shatz has been the Nathan Marsh Pusey Professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. After earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Radcliffe College and her doctorate in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, Shatz spent nearly 15 years at the Stanford University School of Medicine before moving to the University of California-Berkeley, where she served as a professor of neurobiology. In 1994, she was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Among Shatz’s numerous professional accomplishments is her election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Institute of Medicine.

The Mellon Lecture was established in 1915 with initial support from Richard B. Mellon and has continued in recent years with support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The lectureship provides an opportunity for eminent investigators and scholars to lecture at Pitt on the science of medicine.

Klaus Hofmann Lecture, “Animal Biodiversity and Drug Discovery: Cone Snail Venoms, A Case Study”

Baldomero M. Olivera, Distinguished Professor of Biology, University of Utah, and adjunct professor, Salk Institute for Biological Studies Oct. 6, 11 a.m.

Olivera will discuss the possible pharmacological applications of the venom produced by the predatory cone snail Conus magus, which contains neurotoxin peptides that are highly specific to their targeted receptors. Many of those receptors are found in neurons, meaning that the peptides could be useful in targeting pain, neurological diseases, and a host of other conditions. Because more than a hundred peptides can be isolated in any single Conus species and there are hundreds of varieties of the cone snail, this research has vast potential for drug discovery.

After earning his doctorate in biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, Olivera began his career at the University of the Philippines. There, limited laboratory resources forced him to find a study subject that was inexpensive and readily available, leading him to the cone snail. Although Olivera’s primary research interest lies in the molecular mechanisms of the nervous system and its function, the cone snail remains central to his work. Its peptides have led to the discovery of drugs such as ziconotide, a nonopiod analgesic useful for managing severe and chronic pain.

Olivera is a distinguished professor of biology at the University of Utah and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. In April, he was one of 20 leading research scientists designated as Howard Hughes Medical Institute professors, earning a $1 million, four-year grant that he plans to use to develop an interdisciplinary undergraduate neuroscience program at the University of Utah and to promote biodiversity awareness among young students in Pacific island nations. The goal of both initiatives is to encourage participants to consider careers in science.

The Klaus Hofmann Lecture is named for a distinguished biochemistry professor who made Pitt his scientific home from 1944 until his death in 1995 at age 84. Within eight years of coming to Pittsburgh, Hofmann had advanced from assistant research professor of chemistry to chair of the Department of Biochemistry in the School of Medicine. He was best known for his contributions to the field of peptides, and his most publicized work dealt with the synthesis of a fully active, shortened form of the pituitary hormone adrenocorticotropin. The Klaus Hofmann Lecture was established by Hofmann’s widow, Frances Finn Reichl, in 1999, to recognize a basic scientist whose work has clear clinical relevance.

Provost Lecture, “Scientific Challenges in Sustainable Energy Technology”

Nathan S. Lewis, George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry and principal investigator of the Beckman Institute Molecular Materials Research Center, California Institute of Technology Oct. 6, 4 p.m.

Lewis is well known for his groundbreaking work as a chemist and his integrative scientific approach to developing sustainable energy technology. Among his lab’s current projects are studies exploring light-induced electron transfer reactions, both at surfaces and in transition metal complexes; the photochemistry of semiconductor/liquid interfaces; new uses for conducting organic polymers and polymer/conductor composites; and the development of sensor arrays from these polymers that identify odors, mimicking the sense of smell in mammals.

Lewis’s expertise as a basic scientist provides the foundation for his understanding of the technical, political, and economic challenges involved in breaking society’s dependence on fossil fuels and making the switch to renewable energy sources. His detailed knowledge of the dynamics of energy production and transfer allows him to provide a practical and realistic assessment of the hurdles involved in switching to alternative fuels, such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, and geothermal energy.

“We have, at most, 20 years to develop a technology that can cost-effectively produce as much energy in a carbon neutral fashion as we do today from all energy sources combined,” Lewis said. “Otherwise, we will be the first generation to guarantee that the planet for the next 3,000 years or more is not the same one we inherited from previous generations of humans. The sun is the grand champion of energy sources and is clearly the only source capable of supplying more energy in a renewable fashion than humans could ever conceive of using on earth.”

After earning his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981, Lewis was an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford University before moving to Caltech in 1988 as an associate professor of chemistry. After achieving full professorship in 1991, Lewis was honored as the George L. Argyros Professor in 2002.

Lewis has been recognized as an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, and a Presidential Young Investigator. He received the Fresenius Award in 1990, the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry in 1991, the Orton Memorial Lecture Award in 2003, and the Princeton Environmental Award in 2003.

The Provost Lecture is presented by Pitt's Office of the Provost.