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Okafor receives 2024 Cottrell Scholar Award

21 February 2024
Denise Okafor

Denise Okafor, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of chemistry, is among 19 early career scholars in chemistry, physics, and astronomy who have been named by Research Corporation for Science Advancement as recipients of its 2024 Cottrell Scholar Awards.

Cottrell Scholars are chosen through a peer-review process of applications from public and private research universities and primarily undergraduate institutions across the United States and Canada. Their award proposals incorporate both research and science education. The awards are named for Frederick Gardner Cottrell, founder of Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

Okafor received the award for her proposal “Allostery and Architecture: Building and Validating Functional Models of Multidomain Receptors.” Each awardee receives $120,000.

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 Marion Milligan Mason Award in 2023, 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.