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Willaman Gateway to the Life Sciences at University Park during the spring 2024 semester.

Denise Okafor named Huck Early Career Chair in Biophysics

29 May 2024
C. Denise Okafor

Denise Okafor, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Eberly College of Science at Penn State, has been awarded a Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Early Career Chair in Biophysics.

“In recognition of Denise’s outstanding interdisciplinary research, thought leadership and innovation and promise of even greater impact in the life sciences at Penn State, we are delighted to offer her the Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Early Career Chair in Biophysics,” said Troy Ott, acting director for the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences and professor of reproductive biology in the Department of Animal Science.

Okafor’s research is focused on the regulation of protein functionality. Her lab uses computational and experimental methods to study the structural mechanisms of protein signaling and regulation, such as how conformational dynamics of proteins are altered in different functional states. Okafor said she aims to apply this knowledge by developing new methods to modulate protein function.

“My driving force has been to work on projects/problems that are both interesting and important," Okafor said. “I have tried to walk the balance between picking problems that I really enjoy thinking about, but that are also relevant to our field and contribute knowledge that other researchers actually care about.”

The Okafor lab specializes in nuclear receptors, proteins that bind to DNA and impact gene expression. The central role of nuclear receptors in a range of biological processes including metabolism, reproduction and development makes them ideal therapeutic targets for drug development.

“The proteins we work on are ligand-regulated transcription factors and are well established pharmaceutical targets,” Okafor explained. “One of the things that I would love to see come out of our very basic research is new drugs for treating various metabolic diseases. ... Being at Penn State has already allowed my lab to move into areas that I did not envision. During this term, I aim to use this funding to push boundaries even further and take bolder risks and learn new things. This will certainly involve new collaborations that allow my lab to gain expertise that currently do not have. I also hope to increase our scientific outreach efforts.”

Santosh Girirajan, professor of genomics and interim head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, highlighted Okafor's scientific contributions and commitment.

“I am excited and proud of Denise's recognition with the Huck Early Career Chair,” Girirajan said. “Her groundbreaking research, particularly in integrating molecular simulations with biochemistry to investigate transcriptional control of nuclear receptors, has already gained significant recognition in the scientific community. Denise’s relentless pursuit of research excellence makes her a valued member of our department, and I look forward to seeing her achieve greater heights,”

Okafor’s previous honors and awards include the Marion Milligan Mason Award in 2023, the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award in 2022 and a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2022.

Okafor received her bachelor of science in biomedical chemistry from Oral Roberts University, a master of science in chemistry and a doctorate in biochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She conducted postdoctoral research in the Ortlund lab at Emory University, where she held a FIRST (Fellowship in Research and Science Teaching) postdoctoral fellowship.