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New Faculty in the Eberly College of Science

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Science Journal, Fall 2002

Tom Abel, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics

Tom Abel uses supercomputers to study the origin of cosmic structures, such as the first galaxies and stars in the universe. His work combines a careful understanding of both atomic and molecular physics and the hydrodynamics of cosmic matter that led to the formation of the first cosmological objects.

"Everything is connected," Abel said. "The nature and structure of basically all astronomical objects is determined by a complex interplay of microscopic and macroscopic physical processes. The appearance of galaxies is shaped by the birth, life, and death of their constituents, some billions of stars. These stars balance their strong gravitational force with enormous gas pressure that is sustained by nuclear fusion in the stellar centers.

"If you want to study how galaxies come about, you have to learn how stars form, understand the atomic and molecular physics of the primordial gas that makes them, investigate how these stars evolve and die, and how they influence their surroundings."

That's where the supercomputers come into play. Abel is using them to develop new numerical techniques that allow researchers to accurately include as many physical processes as possible in the models. And while telescopes have not yet detected the first stars that formed after the big bang, Abel has been able to realistically recreate them using a supercomputer and a sophisticated computer program to predict what to look for in current and future observations. In addition to publication in scientific journals, Abel's research and computer simulations concerning the origin of the first stars also have captured the imagination of the general public worldwide. Newspaper and popular science magazines, as well as radio and television programs on such stations as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Discovery Channel, have featured his simulations.

"After 30 years of debate on what the nature of the first luminous objects in the universe may be, we now have a clear prediction. They are massive stars and they form in isolation," Abel said. "There is a good chance that observations by researchers at Penn State will discover some of these first luminous objects in the universe. I am looking forward to being part of it when it happens."

Abel joined the Penn State faculty for the spring 2002 semester. He previously worked as the Wempe Lecturer at the Astrophysical Institute in Potsdam, Germany. Prior to that he was a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England and a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard College Observatory.

Abel earned his doctoral degree in astrophysics at Ludwig Maximillians University in Munich, Germany, in 2000. He earned his master's degree in physics at the University of Regensburg in Regensburg, Germany, in 1998.



Gong Chen, assistant professor of biology

Gong Chen is a neuroscientist interested in the function of the brain. His long-term goals are to study the cellular and molecular mechanism of learning and memory and to search for new tools to treat neurological diseases.

Chen's current research focuses on the fundamental mechanism of synaptic transmission. Synapses are elementary units of neuronal connections in the brain. Chen recently developed a single-synapse-recording system to study synaptic transmission at single, visualized synapses.

"This cutting-edge technique provides novel opportunities in studying synaptic plasticity and synaptic protein functions," Chen said. "With the use of a combination of methods in electrophysiology, fluorescent imaging, cell biology, and molecular biology, I am addressing several fundamental issues regarding synapses, including synapse formation, calcium modulation of synaptic transmission, the functions of synaptic proteins, and neuron-glia interactions."

In trying to unravel the mysteries of synapses, Chen expects to collaborate with colleagues in the Department of Biology and other departments. Such collaborations were part of Penn State's lure for Chen. "I was impressed by the strong leadership of Department Head Douglas Cavener and the fast-growing life-science community," Chen said. "More importantly, I found a lot of common interests and potential collaborations with other neuroscientists in the department and elsewhere on campus."

Those collaborations may spill over into the classroom. "I will offer a developmental neurobiology course, possibly next school year. I may also teach a laboratory course with Associate Professor of Biology Richard W. Ordway and Assistant Professor of Biology Siqong June Liud," Chen said. "Balancing teaching and research responsibilities is always a big challenge. I like to use multi-media technology to let students access recent progress in the neuroscience field."

Chen joined the Penn State faculty for the spring 2002 semester, after having been a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Prior to that, he was a postdoctoral associate at Yale University.

Chen earned his doctoral degree in neurobiology in 1993 at the Shanghai Institute of Physiology in China. He earned his bachelor's degree in biology in 1987 at Fudan University in China.



Carsten Krebs assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology

Carsten Krebs is a bioinorganic chemist whose current research interests concern iron-containing enzymes. Iron-containing enzymes play a pivotal role in almost every aspect of life and have been implicated in reactions of medical, pharmaceutical, and environmental importance. Krebs is investigating the question of how these enzymes function by using a combination of spectroscopic, kinetic, and molecular-biological methods in a highly interdisciplinary research program.

Krebs was drawn to Penn State by the University's reputation for interdisciplinary cooperation. "I am not a biochemist by training. I got my Ph.D. degree in inorganic chemistry, and then went on to do my postdoc in a physics department. Now I'm in a biochemistry department and I am trying to establish a research program that crosses the border from traditional disciplines and encompasses biochemistry, synthetic chemistry, and spectroscopy," Krebs said.

"My decision to come to Penn State was mostly stimulated by the opportunity to collaborate with people in the department. In the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology there are many people working on metalloenzymes, specifically with iron-containing enzymes, and Mossbauer spectroscopy, my area of specialty, may provide novel insight into how these enzymes function."

Krebs joined the Penn State faculty in the spring 2002 semester. He had been a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University.

Krebs earned his doctoral degree in chemistry at Max Planck Institute for Radiation Chemistry in Mülheim, Germany, in 1997. He earned his bachelor's and diploma degrees from the Department of Chemistry at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, in 1991 and 1994, respectively.



Michael Teng, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology

Michael Teng focuses his research on mechanisms by which viruses can infect their hosts and how these infections cause disease. In particular, he is studying Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) as a model for viral respiratory disease.

RSV is one of the most pervasive causes of pediatric respiratory disease worldwide. RSV infection leads to serious bronchiolitis and pneumonia and is responsible for approximately 100,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths of infants and children in the United States each year. RSV can also cause severe respiratory illness in elderly patients and immunocompromised individuals. There is currently no licensed vaccine for RSV.

Teng's research centers on trying to determine how RSV infects the cells in the lung and how it counteracts the immune system. RSV, like many other small respiratory viruses, encodes only a few proteins (11 in RSV). Defining how these few proteins interact with cellular proteins to cause disease will allow greater insight into RSV disease and could help lead to antiviral treatments and vaccination strategies.

"The study of viruses has been incredibly fruitful for scientists. The knowledge gained from this venture has led not only to better understanding of virus biology but to a greater understanding of the biology of the infected host," Teng said. In order to infect a host successfully, a virus must meet two requirements. First, the virus must be able to attach to and enter host cells in order to replicate itself. Second, the virus needs to avoid the host's defense mechanisms.

To get into cells, viruses use proteins on their surface that can distinguish between different cell types. This recognition allows the virus first to find cells in which it can replicate and, for animal viruses, to determine the anatomical location that the virus will infect – a process known as viral tropism. The site of infection can determine whether the virus infects the host through its blood, lungs, or sex organs. More importantly, it can determine the disease the viral infection causes. "One of my research interests is examining how the virus recognizes its host cell and what factors are important for viral tropism," Teng says.

A second part of Teng's research focuses more specifically on animal viruses. Mammals have developed complex, two-pronged immune systems. Viruses, even those with the smallest genomes, have found ways to counteract either or both of these branches of the immune system. Teng says clarifying the mechanisms by which viruses block antiviral immunity will lead to the development of treatments to prevent infection and could lead to therapies that enhance immune-system function.

Stimulating research is what lured Teng to Penn State. "The faculty in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology are conducting exciting research and the department has a very congenial atmosphere. In addition, the graduate program here is strong and provides me with a good opportunity to teach at the university level."

Teng joined the Penn State faculty for the spring 2002 semester. He had been a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health. Before that, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Research Institute.

Teng earned his doctoral degree in immunology at the University of Chicago in 1993. He earned his bachelor's degree in life sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1988.


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