C. Denise Okafor, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of chemistry, has been selected as a recipient of the 2023 Marion Milligan Mason Award for Women in the Chemical Sciences by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The Mason Award commemorates the late chemist and AAAS member Marion Tuttle Milligan Mason, who wanted to support the advancement of women in the chemical sciences. Milligan also wanted to honor her family's commitment to higher education for women, as demonstrated by her parents and grandfather, who encouraged and sent several daughters to college. The Mason Award is a highly competitive award that attracts applications from the very best early career female chemists across the country.
First awarded in 2015, the Mason Award has funded the research of 18 scientists who represent a diverse range of specialties within the chemical sciences.
Okafor’s research combines computational and experimental investigations to develop a fundamental understanding of how protein function is regulated. She investigates the structural mechanisms of signaling and regulation in protein complexes and uses simulations to determine how conformational dynamics of proteins are altered in different functional states. Okafor employs a broad range of biochemical and structural techniques to carefully elucidate molecular mechanisms that govern the regulation of protein function. By understanding how proteins are regulated, she aims to identify novel strategies to selectively modulate protein function. She focuses her research on molecules known as nuclear receptors, proteins that bind directly to DNA to regulate the expression of nearby genes. These receptors play critical roles in metabolism, development, reproduction, and other biological processes, which make them highly attractive therapeutic targets.
Okafor’s previous honors and awards include the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award in 2022, a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation in 2021, 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.