After 17 years as a professor at Duke, Linda McGown joined the Rensselaer faculty in June as chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.
Two factors convinced her to make the move: the opportunity to make an imprint on the chemistry program during a period of growth and change, and a collaborative research environment that will help her maintain a dynamic research group.
“Rensselaer is an exciting place right now,” she says. “It’s an old institution, but in a lot of ways it is very new. Coming here is like getting in on the ground floor.”
At Duke, she says, the structure is set, allowing only incremental changes. Rensselaer, she finds “is still fluid, a work in progress. There are a lot of experiments going on because the Institute is trying to make significant strides quickly.”
McGown, known for her work in analytical and bioanalytical chemistry, was brought to Rensselaer to help strengthen the department and its new focus on biotechnology.
“The momentum is in biotechnology at present,” she says. “There is lots of room for growth in that area.”
The department is advertising for a new faculty member in bioanalytical chemistry, which will bring the total in that research area to three McGown, Associate Professor Julie Stenken, and the new hire. There also are searches under way for chaired positions in biochemistry and in organic chemistry.
But McGown emphasizes that Rensselaer researchers are also doing exciting things in other areas of chemistry, including nanotechnology, fuel cells, and polymers. Times change, and in the future, opportunities could come in other unanticipated fields. McGown wants a department that can respond, and she believes the best way to achieve that goal is to maintain a fundamental core of chemistry expertise.
McGown also wants “a department where people can reinvent themselves” if they are doing good science that takes them in unexpected directions.
In her own research, she was feeling isolated at Duke, and she sees Rensselaer’s interdisciplinary environment as her opportunity to move in challenging new directions. She says that on her first visit to campus during the interview process, she talked to three or four faculty members who were interested in her work even though they are not members of the chemistry department.
“I want to collaborate. There are things I want to do that I don’t have the expertise to do by myself. Now I have access to all of these excellent researchers,” she says.
One major attraction was Rensselaer’s renowned faculty in bioseparations and microfluidics. Her group has been studying aptamers, DNA oligonucleotides that have been identified for their high affinity for binding to target molecules. The team has been using aptamers to capture, isolate, and purify proteins, a research direction that has clear implications for bioseparation technology.
In other work, her group is exploring a “directed proteomic strategy” analysis based on affinity binding of certain cellular proteins to immobilized target DNA that corresponds to genomic sequences. The goal is to study proteins involved in basic processes that are important in diseases such as diabetes and cancer.
She also is exploring applications for reversible gels that are formed by guanosine nucleotides, which are found in DNA. People have studied these gels for nano-wires and for a few other very specialized uses, but McGown is considering their potential for more general biotechnology applications.
“Professor McGown brings an extraordinary depth of research and education experience to this position,” said Provost G.P. “Bud” Peterson. “Strengthening the chemistry department is critical to accomplishing the goals of The Rensselaer Plan, particularly as they pertain to biotechnology. Professor McGown’s dedication to fostering the research capabilities of the department within a collaborative environment are essential as we expand in these areas.”
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