Georges Belfort, Rensselaer’s Russell Sage Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has earned a place among the world’s most respected academic and industrial chemical engineers. He recently was named the 2008 recipient of the American Chemical Society (ACS) E.V. Murphree Award in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry.
The award recognizes outstanding theoretical or experimental research in industrial or chemical engineering. In Belfort’s case, the award pays tribute to a distinguished career, marked by seminal contributions in liquid-phase pressure-driven membrane-based processes, bioseparations engineering, interfacial science, and affinity separations. His work also has earned the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Clarence Gerhold Award in Separation Science and Technology, in 2000, and the ACS Award in Separation Science and Technology, in 1995.
Throughout much of his career, Belfort has followed Nobel Prize winner Peter B. Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist, which, in part, encourages young researchers to “study important problems.” Belfort takes the advice a step further, urging young scientists to ask important questions and to seek answers both within and beyond their own disciplines.
“What’s critical is to read about developments outside your own field, to ask important questions, and to look for connections to cross-fertilize,” he said. As an example, Belfort cites his team’s research into how well-folded proteins lose their structure and form the fibrils that are present in the brains of patients with amyloid diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The work stemmed from the team’s earlier work on how proteins aggregate and from questions on whether the fibrils themselves are toxic or whether they serve as a storage device for toxic agents.
“Our group decided that chemical engineers could play a small role in unraveling these mysteries,” Belfort said. The group started with the question: How does a well-folded protein lose its structure and become a fibril? To find the answer, the group began experimenting with insulin, in vitro, to determine how different surfaces and substances influence the behavior of proteins.
“If we can answer these questions in vitro, perhaps what we discover can be used to understand how proteins behave inside the body,” Belfort explained. Belfort’s team collaborated with scientists outside the Institute to develop the mathematical modeling for their research. Such collaboration is typical of Belfort, whose “door is always open to students in my group and to potential collaborations.” In fact, Belfort’s current research partners include peers at the Institute, across the United States, and around the globe. Among them is his wife, Marlene, a research scientist at the Wadsworth Center and a distinguished professor in the University at Albany’s School of Public Health.
Belfort is quick to point out that true collaboration is not necessarily characterized by agreement. Instead, he encourages students and other collaborators to engage in spirited debates and to challenge one another.
“I don’t want my students to be passive,” Belfort said. “I’m a firm believer in stimulating disagreements about research. We have a weekly group meeting that is by no means quiet, and that’s done on purpose. I prefer an atmosphere in which we respectfully argue about science rather than passively accept assumptions.”
Belfort holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and a master’s and doctorate in engineering from the University of California at Irvine. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. Belfort also is co-founder and former president of the North American Membrane Society and has twice been named a fellow of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science.
The editor or coeditor of three books, Belfort has written more than 160 published reviewed papers and book chapters. He serves on the editorial board of several international journals and is the international editor of the Journal of Chemical Engineering of Japan. Belfort also lectures widely in both academic and industrial settings and is an active consultant in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
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