50 Years at Penn State: Steve and Pat Benkovic and Harry and Noreen Allcock

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20 September 2016

50 Years at Penn State: Steve and Pat Benkovic and Harry and Noreen Allcock

There is a certain level of drive and dedication that one needs to be a successful professor at a research university like Penn State. To do so for over fifty years is a remarkable accomplishment. Two of our faculty members have recently hit this 50-year mark. Steve Benkovic and Harry Allcock have both made enormous contributions to chemistry, as well as other fields, during their time at Penn State. They have not only led their scientific fields for five decades, but they have also trained an army of students and postdocs who have gone on to contribute in their own ways to science and technology.

Benkovic obtained his B.S. degree in Chemistry and his B.A. degree in English Literature from Lehigh University and went on to receive his Ph.D. degree from Cornell University in Organic Chemistry. After serving as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he joined the Chemistry Department at Penn State University in 1965 and is now Evan Pugh Professor and Eberly Chair of Chemistry. He has since been the recipient of many awards, including the Pfizer Enzyme Award, The Gowland Hopkins Award, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, the Nakanishi Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, the National Medal of Honor, the National Academy of Science Award in Chemical Sciences, and the National Medal of Science, among others. Additionally, he has been elected to be a member of the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.  He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Allcock received his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of London and went on to serve as a postdoctoralfellow at Purdue University and the National Research Council of Canada. He then was a senior scientist at American Cyanamid Co. in Stamford, CT, before beginning his position at Penn State University, where he now also serves as  Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry. He is also affiliated with the departments of Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering. In addition to being elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2014, Allcock has received many awards throughout his academic career, including the American Chemical Society National Award in Polymer Chemistry, the American Institute of Chemists Chemical Pioneer Award, the American Chemical Society National Award in Materials Chemistry, and the American Chemical Society National Award in Applied Polymer Science, as well as others such as three ACS Polymer Division awards.  More than 640 research publications have been published by the Allcock group, and he is the author or co-author of six books on polymers and materials.

In the time they have spent at Penn State University, Benkovic and Allcock have both made immensely impactful scientific contributions. Benkovic’s main research focus is the understanding of how enzymes catalyze chemical reactions on a molecular level. To address this general theme, his lab is currently pursuing three main projects. One of these projects involves structure-function studies on dihydrofolate reductases coupled with theoretical insight, which has led to a better understanding of how these enzymes achieve transition state stabilization through the combined effects of many residues dispersed throughout the enzyme. Also of interest to Benkovic is the assembly and collective effort of the eight proteins that make up the holoenzyme and primosome in the T4 replisome DNA replication system. Utilizing techniques such as fluorescence energy transfer, chemical crosslinking, and single molecule and ensemble kinetics coupled with structural techniques such as crystallography and electron microscopy, Benkovic’s work has helped establish the workings of the T4 replisome multi-protein assembly to reveal that the assembly is highly dynamic and that while some proteins help to make up the assembly core, others are specifically geared towards catalysis for construction of the DNA. In a more in vivo effort to study protein assembly, Benkovic is also studying the multi-enzyme effort towards synthesis of a purine from a sugar pyrophosphate. Techniques such as confocal fluorescence microscopy are allowing for the observation of how the involved proteins function together within cells.

Allcock’s research endeavors are based around the development of novel functionalized polymers with the goal of providing materials for use in biomedical, aerospace, energy, photonic, and solar applications. Allcock discovered a new method of synthesizing polymers by macromolecular substitution. This led to a new class of polymers known as polyphosphazenes, which possess a backbone of alternating phosphorous and nitrogen atoms with two organic, inorganic, or organometallic side groups attached to the phosphorous atoms. The research in Allcock’s lab is aimed at the development of novel methods for the synthesis of these and other polymers that contain both organic and inorganic units, as well as understanding the reasons for the new property combinations that are generated. Depending on their chemical composition, phosphazene high polymers can be tailored to have various chemical and physical properties that make them useful for the applications mentioned above. New polymers are studied by NMR, IR, gel permeation chromatography, X-ray diffraction, surface and mechanical techniques, thermal analysis, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, and biocompatibility assays, and attempts are then made to understand how changes in polymer structure result in different property combinations. This approach provides an experiment-based method for predicting the properties and prospective uses of polymers not yet synthesized.

When asked about the motivation that has led to the successes of his career at Penn State, Benkovic, who considers every day a new adventure, states that “it’s very easy if you love what you’re doing.”  If “you’re doing it enthusiastically, it’s not really a job.  It’s the joy of discovering things, and I think that’s infectious.”  Allcock adds that playing into the success of his research at Penn State is the continuous line of questions that arise.  “Every discovery we make leads to a number of different questions. Following up [with] those questions leads to [the discovery of] more polymers with different and often unexpected combinations of properties and so on.”  While Benkovic and Allcock’s research endeavors have both been very impactful, the success of their careers are also exemplified in the students that they have trained and prepared for their own successful futures. “The real legacy that we leave is the students and post-docs who have been trained,” notes Benkovic.  Benkovic has graduated many students who have gone on to hold prominent positions, which include 70 university positions worldwide and a number of vice president positions and research group leader positions in pharmaceutical companies.  In Allcock’s time at Penn State University, more than 100 Ph.D. graduates, 30 postoctoral fellows, 15 M.S graduates, and 30 undergraduate students have passed through his lab with over 70 holding industrial research and management positions, 26 holding academic positions, and 6 holding legal, medical, and government positions in a variety of countries.  He states that “a large part of what [his lab] has accomplished is due to their efforts.”

Both Benkovic and Allcock also dedicate a large part of their successes to the support of their wives.  Benkovic calls his wife, Pat, “indispensable.”  Not only does she continue to advise and teach students who pass through the lab, but she also handles the finances. According to Benkovic, the lab is extremely well-organized “because of her touch.”  Similarly, Noreen Allcock has performed “an enormous amount of work handling research proposals, budgets, [and] doing the accounting that’s necessary in a large research group….  A large part of the success of our group has been due to her participation,” states her husband.

When asked what advice he would provide to the younger scientific generation, Allcock advises to “try to get as broad an experience as possible because [he believes] that, after a certain point in one’s career, breadth of perspective is at least as important as specialized knowledge.”  Benkovic notes that currently, research funding is difficult to obtain.  He states, however, that “if you love what you’re doing, it will work out….  Don’t worry about the present situation:  it will change.  Basic research will always be important.”  The successful stories of both Benkovic and Allcock serve as an example and an inspiration to other faculty and younger scientists, demonstrating how curiosity and determination can lead to a truly wonderful career with lasting impact in science and the broader community.