Squire J. Booker, professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University, has been named an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a science philanthropy whose mission is to advance biomedical research and science education for the benefit of humanity. As one of 26 new HHMI investigators chosen from 894 applicants, Booker joins a group of scientists, including 17 Nobel laureates, widely recognized for their creativity and research accomplishment. The HHMI chooses investigators based on a "people, not projects" philosophy allowing its investigators the freedom to explore creative approaches to difficult biomedical problems. Booker will receive flexible support designed to enable him to move his research forward in creative new directions.
Booker’s main research interests include deciphering the molecular details by which enzymes -- a special class of proteins -- catalyze reactions in the cell. He then uses the insight gained to manipulate these reactions for various objectives, ranging from the production of biofuels to the development of antibacterial agents. His laboratory garnered international attention for elucidating a pathway by which disease-causing bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus evade entire classes of commonly used antibiotics. These results were published in two papers in the journal Science, a paper in Nature Chemical Biology, and two papers in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. He is particularly well known for his research on enzymes employing extremely reactive molecules, known as free radicals, to catalyze their reactions.
In 2014, Booker was been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest general scientific society and the publisher of the journal Science. In 2011, Booker was honored with an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award. The award, which consists of a monetary prize and an unrestricted research grant, is given by the American Chemical Society "to recognize and encourage excellence in organic chemistry." In 2004, Booker was recognized as one of 57 of the country's most promising scientists and engineers by President George W. Bush with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. He received the award at the White House in recognition of his research on enzyme reactions, including his work on an enzyme involved in the synthesis of unusual fatty acids, which is needed by the bacteria responsible for most cases of tuberculosis. In 2002, he received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, the agency's most prestigious award for new faculty members.
Booker has mentored 15 graduate students, over 35 undergraduate students, and two high-school students. He is known for encouraging students in underrepresented groups to consider science-based careers. Booker has published about 70 scientific papers in journals such as Science, the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and he has served as guest editor for Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, Biochimica Biophysica Acta, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. He is past-chair of the Minority Affairs Committee of the American Association of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and is co-organizer of the society's 2016 annual meeting.
Booker earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at Austin College in 1987, where he was a Minnie Stevens Piper Scholar, and a doctoral degree in biochemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994. That same year he was awarded a National Science Foundation–NATO Fellowship for postdoctoral studies at Université Rene Décartes in Paris, France. Later, in 1996, he was awarded a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellowship for studies at the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin. He joined the Penn State faculty in 1999.
HHMI was founded in 1953 by aviator and industrialist Howard R. Hughes. Through its philanthropy, HHMI empowers exceptional scientists and students to pursue fundamental questions about living systems.