Squire J. Booker, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State, Holder of the Eberly Family Distinguished Chair in Science, and investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has been awarded the 2023 Percy L. Julian Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). This award recognizes and honors achievements in pure and/or applied science, as well as dedication over the years in research and commitment to the STEM community. Booker was recently presented with the award at NOBCChE’s 50th Anniversary Gala and Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.
"It was an awe-inspiring experience to hear Squire talk about his mentors and role models - not just for me but for the entire audience," said Carsten Krebs, professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State who attended the NOBCChE conference in support of his colleague Booker. “He received standing ovations at the conclusion of his talk and many students came afterwards to congratulate him. Squire epitomizes Black excellence; he is not only a top-notch scientist, but, more importantly, his incessant efforts to mentor and provide opportunities to the next generation of minority scientists contributes to the growth of Black excellence."
Booker’s main research interests include deciphering the molecular details by which enzymes—a special class of proteins—catalyze unique reactions in the cell. He is particularly well-known for his research on enzymes employing extremely reactive molecules, known as free radicals, to catalyze their reactions. He uses the insight gained to manipulate these reactions for various objectives, ranging from the production of biofuels to the development of antibacterial agents. His laboratory has garnered international recognition for 1) elucidating a pathway by which disease-causing bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus evade entire classes of commonly used antibiotics; 2) determining how sulfur atoms are appended to unreactive carbon centers; 3) elucidating how a molecule called methylcobalamin is used to add methyl groups to unreactive carbon centers; and, most recently, 4) identifying the final step and chemical mechanism in the formation of certain membrane lipids found in organisms called archaea, a reaction type that had never before been observed in nature.
“Squire’s creativity, keen eye for the most important questions in this area, and courage to tackle problems plagued by seemingly insurmountable technical barriers have allowed him to lead and even transcend the field,” said Marty Bollinger, Russell and Mildred Marker Professor of Natural Products Chemistry and professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology, who is a colleague and friend of Booker’s. “His own accomplishments and those that his technical innovations enabled have transformed our understanding of the biosynthetic logic of early life, mechanisms of modern biosynthetic pathways, and mechanisms of antibiotic resistance.”
“His leadership of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology's Minority Affairs Committee, creation and leadership of its ‘IMAGE’ grant-writing workshop to teach young academics how to write better research proposals, service to its ‘MOSAIC’ program that helps promising postdoctoral researchers from diverse backgrounds assume faculty careers at research-intensive institutions, and multiple DEI initiatives at Penn State are legendary, both locally and nationally,” Bollinger continued. “Squire is a creative, passionate scientist who gives back to the scientific community and its underserved constituencies as much as anyone I know."
Booker is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a Fellow of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2022, Booker was awarded the ASBMB-Merck Award and the Ruth Kirschstein Diversity in Science Award from the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). In 2016, he received the Penn State Faculty Scholar Medal, which recognizes scholarly or creative excellence through contributions around a coherent theme. In 2015, he was named an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a science philanthropy organization dedicated to advancing biomedical research and science education for the benefit of humanity. In 2011, he was honored with an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award by the American Chemical Society, which is given "to recognize and encourage excellence in organic chemistry." In 2004, Booker was recognized as one of 57 of the United States' most promising scientists and engineers by then President George W. Bush with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. In 2002, he received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, the agency's most prestigious award for new faculty members.
“In receiving the Percy L. Julian Award, Squire adds to the astonishing list of Black scientists who have made profoundly creative and meaningful contributions to chemistry,” states Department Head Phil Bevilacqua. “I speak for the entire department when I say I deeply admire Squire’s towering contributions to enzyme mechanism, and I express how much he means to all of us in chemistry and the entire university."
Booker earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at Austin College in 1987, where he was a Minnie Stevens Piper Scholar, and a doctoral degree in biochemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994. That same year he was awarded a National Science Foundation–NATO Fellowship for postdoctoral studies at Université René Décartes in Paris, France. Later, in 1996, he was awarded a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellowship for studies at the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin. He joined the Penn State faculty in 1999.