Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

Chemistry Professor Wins White House Award
Montpelier Spring 1999

Chemistry professor Gina MacDonald received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) at the White House in February. It is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on young re-searchers and recognizes MacDonald as one of the nation's most outstanding and promising new scientists.

The Clinton Administration established the PECASE in 1996 to recognize the nation's finest new scientists and engineers and to maintain U.S. leadership in scientific research.

"These talented young men and women show exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge," Clinton said. "Their passion for discovery will spark our can-do spirit of technological innovation and drive this nation forward and build a better America for the 21st century."

The 31-year-old MacDonald was one of 60 scientists who received the award at the White House and one of 20 awardees nominated for the PECASE by the National Science Foundation. She was selected from more than 1,122 candidates for the award. The NSF selects its nominees for the PECASE from among the most meritorious recipients of its Faculty Early Career Development grants, which NSF awards to young investigators with exceptional leadership and research potential and who integrate research and education.

"These are the 'Golden Globe Awards' for the Albert Einsteins and Marie Curies of tomorrow our nation's most promising scientists and engineering educators," said NSF Director Rita Colwell. NSF awardees receive $500,000 each over a five-year period to further their research and educational efforts.

MacDonald, who attended award ceremonies at the White House's Old Executive Office Building and at NSF headquarters, called the PECASE "icing on the cake." The award was meaningful "because I know the winners were chosen by scientists.

"I was 99.9 percent sure [officials] weren't going to give this award to anybody who wasn't at a major research institution. I was ecstatic when I found out I had gotten it."

In fact, says College of Science and Mathematics Interim Dean John Gilje, "nearly all of the 60 young scientists and engineers who received the PECASE work at major research universities and national laboratories. We are an institution that is devoted to teaching and student learning. Dr. MacDonald's work demonstrates that our dedication to students is consistent with world-class scholarship."

MacDonald was recognized for her outstanding research contributions to the understanding of the biophysical and biochemical bases of DNA repair and recombination and for involving undergraduates and secondary-level science teachers in research.

Her research involves the study of a protein, RecA, that repairs DNA. "We know what RecA does," MacDonald says. "We are studying the small structural variations that are responsible for regulating its function and performing the DNA strand exchange reaction."

The biophysical chemist says it is too soon to predict the future benefits of her work. "However," she says, "a variety of research efforts are often needed to solve complex problems such as a cure for cancer or genetic diseases. I can't say that this research will lead to a cure for a disease, but you never know especially when it is combined with other basic research efforts ongoing around the country."

MacDonald joined the chemistry department in August 1996 and says she has found her teaching and research niche at JMU.

"The chemistry department has a lot of instrumentation," MacDonald says, "and it was obvious to me that [faculty members] all seem to get along really well and really care about teaching."

In addition, she says, the department has a penchant for landing highly competitive external funding, which MacDonald calls "outside the norm" for undergraduate institutions that emphasize teaching.

Known as "Dr. Mac" among her students, MacDonald has worked closely with undergraduate researchers at JMU, including Scott Brewer ('99) and Steven Cresawn ('96). The students helped obtain the preliminary research results that helped land a $370,000 NSF CAREER grant in June 1998 for the project, "A Difference Infrared Spectroscopic Study of a Nucleo-tide Binding Protein."

Part of that CAREER project involves high-school science teachers in ongoing research during the summer. Michael Marzolf, a teacher at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, for example, worked with former JMU student Lori Kain ('98) on a project to develop new laboratories for upper-level biochemistry lab classes offered at the university.

Also during the summer, MacDonald works closely with students as the co-director of JMU's Chemistry Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which is funded by the NSF.

MacDonald earned a B.S. in biophysics at the University of Connecticut in 1989 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics at the University of Minnesota in 1994. She was a postdoctoral research associate at Los Alamos National Laboratory prior to beginning her teaching and research career at JMU.

"The College of Science and Mathematics is delighted and honored by Dr. MacDonald's selection for a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering," Gilje says.

"The award recognizes Dr. MacDonald's combined educational and research activities and was possible because she rapidly involved our undergraduates in her work.

"In the short time she has been at JMU, she has made important scientific discoveries, introduced many students to biochemistry and been instrumental in obtaining National Science Foundation funding for the chemistry department's undergraduate research program," the college dean says.

"Dr. MacDonald exemplifies what a dedicated teacher-scholar can achieve at JMU."

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