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University of Minnesota chemistry professor receives highest honor from U.S. government

Erin Carlson nominated for research on antibiotic-resistant infections, education and outreach

February 29, 2016

University of Minnesota Department of Chemistry Professor Erin Carlson has been named by President Barack Obama as a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Carlson is one of only 105 winners nationwide who will receive their awards at a Washington, D.C. ceremony this spring.

“These early-career scientists are leading the way in our efforts to confront and understand challenges from climate change to our health and wellness,” President Obama said. “We congratulate these accomplished individuals and encourage them to continue to serve as an example of the incredible promise and ingenuity of the American people.”

Carlson was nominated for the award by the National Science Foundation for her discovery of novel chemistry underlying a new approach to treat antibiotic-resistant infections, for leadership in the chemistry and women-chemists communities, and for developing new hands-on laboratory activities to engage K-12 students in natural product chemistry.

Concerned about the dramatic increase in drug-resistant bacteria, Carlson’s research unites tools from chemistry and biology to promote discovery of the master regulators of bacterial growth and communication, and ultimately, the identification of new antibiotics that possess both potency and long-term efficacy. She is working to identify strategies that lead to the development of antibiotics that will inhibit or slow the evolution of resistance.

In addition to her own research initiatives, Carlson is one of the new researchers within the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN), which is focused on evaluating the impact of nanotechnology on the environment and biosphere. With expertise in molecular synthesis and mass spectrometry, Carlson brings tools and techniques that are helping the CSN team to investigate and control molecular-level chemical and biological interactions with nanoparticles.

Carlson, who joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota in 2014, developed a first-of-its-kind chemical biology laboratory course. The course exposes students to the application of modern chemical concepts and techniques to biological problems, helps students understand how chemistry and biology are related, and explains why this interdisciplinary focus is important to the study of human biology and therapeutic development.

Carlson has also developed a program called, “Natural Products and Lighting the Fire of Curiosity” to introduce children of all ages to natural products. From the colors of flowers and the smell of citrus to the agents used as drugs, natural products provide the ideal model with which to ignite an interest in chemistry as these molecules perform functions that students can recognize and relate to.

Carlson also contributes to the chemistry profession. In 2014, she was elected Councilor of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Division of Biological Chemistry, helping to set policies for this national professional society that directly affect the Biological Division constituency, and acting as the voice of the national ACS to her constituency about the greater needs of the ACS as a whole.

Carlson received her bachelor's degree in chemistry from St. Olaf College in 2000 and a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. After postdoctoral studies at The Scripps Research Institute (2006-2008), she started her independent career as an assistant professor of chemistry at Indiana University in 2008. Carlson joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota as an associate professor in the summer of 2014.                   

Carlson has received many other awards including the Pew Biomedical Scholar Award, National Institute of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and the Cottrell Scholar Award. She was also named a Sloan Research Fellow.

The Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

For more information, visit the White House website.

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