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Okafor receives ICDS seed grant to explore protein transcription

11 May 2022
Image of Denise Okafor

C. Denise Okafor, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, is one of eight researchers at Penn State to receive a seed grant from Penn State’s Institute for Computational and Data Sciences (ICDS) to bolster computational and data science research projects throughout the University.

Each seed grant awards an allotment of time for a member of ICDS’s Research Innovations with Scientists and Engineers (RISE) team to work with a research team. The ICDS RISE team consists of individuals with research domain experience who are also experts in various facets of computational science. In 2020, ICDS received an NSF grant to provide research groups at all 24 Penn State campuses access to RISE team members.

Okafor's project is titled "Predicting Ligand-Regulated Protein-Protein Interactions." The RISE team will be helping Okafor apply machine learning models to understand factors affecting protein transcription. The team is specifically looking at ligands, a type of molecule that can impact gene expression. Ligands sometimes ‘recruit’ additional molecules to the process, and Okafor’s team is trying to characterize the circumstances under which recruiting takes place.

Okafor’s previous honors and awards include 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.

ICDS will be offering RISE seed grants periodically; for more information, visit the ICDS RISE webpage.