New Faculty Spotlights

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20 September 2016

Joseph Cotruvo, Jr.

Joseph Cotruvo, Jr. joined the department as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry in July 2016.  His group is interested in using chemical biology and biochemistry to investigate nutrient dynamics in living cells, in particular the biology of transition metals.  Transition metals are used by half of all proteins and catalyze some of the most difficult and important reactions in biology.  The Cotruvo lab aims to develop new tools to image metal ions in cells and – using these tools in combination with biochemical, biophysical, and cell biology techniques – to discover new cellular pathways, study them, and ultimately manipulate them for the benefit of society.  For example, his group is interested in how pathogenic bacteria acquire the nutrients, such as transition metals, that they need to survive and proliferate in the host.  Being able to directly visualize metals in both the host organism and the pathogen will enable a better understanding of the host and pathogen factors affecting metal dynamics over the course of infection.  These results will illuminate new targets for therapeutic intervention in an array of microbial infections.  Prior to joining the Penn State faculty, Cotruvo was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley with Prof. Christopher Chang, and he earned his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012 under the guidance of Prof. JoAnne Stubbe.  He graduated summa cum laude with an A.B. in Chemistry from Princeton University in 2006.  His honors include a Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellowship and a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.  At Penn State, he will be the Louis Martarano Early Career Professor.

Aaron Garner

Aaron Garner joined the department in August 2016 as a Lecturer. He received B.S. degrees in Chemistry, Biological Sciences, and Botany from North Carolina State University and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University. As a graduate student, Aaron worked with Prof. Daniel Kahne and studied the oxidative assembly pathway of the outer membrane portion of the Gram negative lipopolysaccharide translocon LptD/E and determined the X-ray crystal structure of the E. coli LptD/E complex. Passionate about undergraduate education, Aaron has served for the past two years as a preceptor (teaching faculty) in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University where he primarily taught Life Sciences 1a, an introductory course for STEM majors that integrates principles from general chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology.

Joseph Houck

Joseph Houck joined the department in August 2016 as a Lecturer. He is a Central PA native; raised on a dairy farm in Seven Stars.  He attended Juniata College where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry with a secondary emphasis in Education.   After graduation, he worked for Dr. Timothy Macdonald at the University of Virginia on the design, synthesis, and evaluation of sphingosine kinase inhibitors for their use as a targeted cancer therapy.  He received his Ph.D. in Chemistry in 2013.  For the past three years, Joe has been a Lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park.  He has taught general and organic chemistry lectures and labs.  In 2015, he was awarded the Dean's Outstanding Lecturer Award and received a fellowship for course redesign to increase student engagement by implementing the use of electronic laboratory notebooks.  Since working with Science in Motion in college, Joe has maintained an interest in science outreach by bringing hands-on science activities to local elementary schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other public events.  Joe is looking forward to moving "home" and enjoys spending time with his family including his wife, Emma, and 8-month-old son, Lewis.

Gerald Knizia

Gerald Knizia joined the department in 2015 as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry. His research interests focus on theoretical chemistry. In synthetic chemistry, progress is often hampered by the difficulty of performing meaningful theoretical calculations. Knizia aims to rectify this situation by researching simpler and better computational methods for finding, characterizing, and understanding reaction mechanisms. In pursuit of this goal, the main focus is the development of a practical, real-world technique for predicting reaction mechanisms ex nihilo, based on modern machine learning algorithms combined with tailored quantum mechanical methods. Other efforts include the continued development of both quantitative and interpretive electronic structure methods, at both the density functional and wave function level; these novel methods are distributed in the widely used Molpro quantum chemistry package, of which Knizia is one of the main authors. Before joining the faculty at Penn State, Knizia held appointments as a junior group leader at the University of Stuttgart, and as postdoctoral scholar at Princeton University and Cornell University. He earned his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Stuttgart in 2010, after completing a master’s degree in physics at Dresden University of Technology in 2006.

Ed O'Brien

Ed O’Brien joined the department in January 2014 as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry. His research interests focus on addressing questions of fundamental biological importance at the molecular and cellular length scales by developing and applying theoretical and computational tools rooted in the fields of chemistry, physics and computer science in close connection with experimental data. He is currently using these methods to understand protein behavior during and shortly after their synthesis by the ribosome. This is a critical period in the life of a protein because the manner in which it is synthesized can have a profound effect on cellular health. One overarching goal of his research program is to understand, model and predict the influence of translation and co-translational processes on nascent proteome behavior, which will impact fields such as biomedicine and biotechnology. Since starting at Penn State, Ed has been awarded two prestigious grants, including a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and an HFSP grant that had a 2% success rate; he has published several papers in high-impact journals including in the Journal of the American Chemical Society; and he has organized serveral international symposia and conferences. Because his research is multi-disciplinary Ed has put together a team scientists composed of chemists, physicists and bioinformaticians. Before joining the faculty at Penn State, O’Brien was a postdoctoral scholar at University of Cambridge. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland College Park in 2008. O’Brien’s awards and honors include an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship, NSF EAPSI Graduate Fellowship, NIH GPP Graduate Fellowship, EPSRC (UK) grant, Royal Society (UK) University Research Fellowship, and BBSRC (UK) David Phillip’s Fellowship.

Lauren Zarzar

Lauren Zarzar joined the department in August 2016 as an Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemistry. She earned a B.A. in Chemistry and a B.S. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Harvard University. As a graduate student, she worked in the group of Prof. Joanna Aizenberg studying the design, fabrication, and functional mechanisms of responsive hydrogel micro-actuators. She then served as a postdoctoral associate in Timothy Swager’s group in the Department of Chemistry at MIT exploring complex emulsions that reconfigure in response to chemical and environmental stimuli. Her research interests include the development of strategies to integrate materials with enhanced chemical and spatial control on nano to micrometer length scales and the design of dynamic materials systems displaying responsive or adaptive behavior.

Xin Zhang

Xin Zhang joined the department in August 2015 as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. His research interests focus on biological chemistry and chemical biology. Proper folding and appropriate function of the cellular proteome is essential for life. However, this process is constantly challenged by stresses that dynamically alter the cellular folding environment. The Zhang lab aims to 1) develop chemical tools to monitor cellular stresses that influence protein folding in real time; 2) decipher how the energy landscapes associated with proper protein folding and function are regulated by the cellular folding environment; and 3) examine how this regulation leads to significant biological consequences. The success of this research program not only discerns the origin and consequence of the biological regulation of protein folding and function in a fashion that has not been considered to date, but also potentiates diagnosis and therapeutic strategies to human diseases that are rooted in defective protein folding and function. Before joining the faculty at Penn State, Zhang was a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Research Institute. He earned a Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology in 2010, an M.S. at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2004, and completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Science and Technology of China in 2001. Zhang’s awards and honors include a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface, a Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship, an ACS Nobel Laureate Signature Award for Graduate Education in Chemistry, and a Caltech Herbert Newby McCoy Award in Chemistry.