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Denise Okafor receives 2021 National Science Foundation CAREER Award

3 January 2022
Denise Okafor

C. Denise Okafor, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER award is NSF’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty members who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

The CAREER award will provide five years of funding to support Okafor’s research to understand a particular type of transcription factor—molecules that regulate when genes are turned on or “transcribed”—called nuclear hormone receptors. These transcription factors first bind to one of several molecules called ligands, which then allows a transcription factor to bind to a specific DNA sequence on the genome to initiate gene expression.

“One part of the receptor binds DNA, another part binds ligands. The relative positions of these sites can vary dramatically,” said Okafor. “We hope to understand how these individual locations, called DNA and ligand binding domains respectively, communicate with each other and otherwise allow such precise biological control of the transcription process. Improving our molecular understanding of these transcription factors may reveal key details that drive a variety of important physiological processes.”

Okafor will use a variety of techniques to advance this work, including molecular experiments and imaging, biophysical approaches, and computational modeling. Additionally, she will generate educational materials that will promote teaching and learning of protein dynamics for K-12 and undergraduate courses and provide research training for high school teachers and undergraduate and graduate students.

“The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is thrilled that Dr. Okafor is being recognized with the NSF CAREER award for her excellence and her potential as an early-career scientist and professor,” said Wendy Hanna-Rose, professor and head of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State. “The outcomes of her efforts will include cutting-edge training for our students using computational methods, new insights into protein function with wide-ranging implications in molecular biology, and innovative materials for use in K-12 classrooms. We are very fortunate to have her applying her creativity and energy here in our Penn State community.”

Okafor’s previous honors and awards include a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface for 2018 to 2023 and selection as a 2019 Keystone Symposia Fellow. She was awarded the Protein Society Hans Neurath Outstanding Promise Travel Award in 2018.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State in 2020, Okafor was a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University School of Medicine from 2015 to 2019, where she held a FIRST (Fellowship in Research and Science Teaching) postdoctoral fellowship from 2015 to 2018. Okafor earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical chemistry at Oral Roberts University in 2007, and a master’s degree in chemistry in 2010 and a doctoral degree in biochemistry in 2015 at the Georgia Institute of Technology.