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DNA melding into phylogenetic tree

New Faculty - Summer 2020

27 July 2020
Pia Abel zur Wiesch

Pia Abel zur Wiesch, associate professor of biology, employs a systems-pharmacology approach in the development of drug-treatment strategies with a primary focus on bacterial diseases like tuberculosis. She uses theoretical models in close collaboration with experimentalists and clinicians in attempting to streamline the drug-development process. For example, her lab has developed mathematical models that can help reduce the amount of trial and error usually required for antibiotic development. 

Abel zur Wiesch’s awards and honors include the medal for outstanding thesis from ETH Zurich in 2012 and a fellowship from the Summer School Modeling in Infectious Diseases at the University of Washington in 2010. She has presented her research in invited lectures around the world. Her research has been published in scientific journals including Science Translational Medicine, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PLOS Pathogens, and Nature Methods

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Abel zur Wiesch was Seniorforsker (a tenure track group leader position) in the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Tromsø in Norway and concurrently a young associate investigator at the Centre for Molecular Medicine Norway from 2015 to 2019. She was a visiting assistant professor at Yale University from 2015 to 2017, a research fellow at Yale from 2014 to 2015, a research fellow at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital from 2012 to 2015, and a postdoctoral fellow at ETH Zurich from 2011 to 2012. Abel zur Wiesch earned a doctoral degree in theoretical biology at ETH Zurich in 2011 and a master’s degree in biochemistry and oncology at University Basel in 2006.


Jacob Bourjaily

Jacob Bourjaily, associate professor of physics, is a theoretical physicist whose research revolves around quantum field theory—the basic theoretical and mathematical framework that combines quantum mechanics with relativity. He works to revolutionize how quantum field theory is used to make predictions for experiments. Among the most important of these predictions are scattering amplitudes, which encode the predicted relative likelihoods of all possible outcomes of any experiment. Bourjaily’s research has led to great advances in the ability to make such predictions and in understanding the mathematical form that these predictions take.

Bourjaily has been honored with many awards and major grants, including a Young Investigator Award from the Danish Villum Foundation in 2017 and a Starting Grant from the European Research Council in 2018, used to bring together one of the world’s largest groups studying scattering amplitudes. He was elected a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows in 2011. Bourjaily has published many articles in leading scientific journals and co-authored the book “Grassmannian Geometry of Scattering Amplitudes,” published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. His work has been featured in popular scientific news outlets including Nature, Quanta Magazine, and New Scientist, and his work even made an appearance on the television show The Big Bang Theory

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Bourjaily was a visiting professor at Harvard University and assistant then associate professor at the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. He earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics at the University of Michigan in 2005. He was awarded a Marshall Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics at Cambridge University, which he earned in 2006, and completed a doctoral degree in theoretical physics at Princeton University in 2011.


C. Denise Okafor

C. Denise Okafor, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, studies the relationship between the conformation of proteins and their regulation and function. She uses computational, biochemical, and structural techniques to investigate the molecular mechanisms that regulate protein function, and hopes to identify novel strategies that could allow that function to be modulated. In particular, she studies a family of proteins called nuclear receptors that play an important role in metabolism, development, reproduction, and other biological processes and are attractive targets for novel therapeutic interventions.

Okafor’s 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, 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.


Zachary Szpiech

Zachary Szpiech, assistant professor of biology, uses techniques from evolutionary, population, and medical genetics to understand how populations evolve. This includes using theory, simulation of data, and large-scale analysis of real-world data. Szpiech investigates how processes like inbreeding and natural selection affect trait variation within and between populations. He also studies the genomic consequences of a population adapting to a local environment and how a population’s history might influence a complex trait in that population.

Szpiech’s master’s studies were supported by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) T32 predoctoral fellowship in bioinformatics, and his doctoral studies were supported by an NIH T32 predoctoral fellowship in genome sciences. He has regularly presented at annual conferences for the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution and the American Society for Human Genetics. He has published numerous articles in scientific journals including The American Journal of Human Genetics, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Bioinformatics, Cell, and Nature.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Szpiech was a postdoctoral scholar at Auburn University from 2019 to 2020 and at the University of California, San Francisco, from 2012 to 2018. He completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, a master’s degree in bioinformatics, and a doctoral degree in bioinformatics at the University of Michigan in 2007, 2009, and 2012, respectively. 


Stephanie Wissel

Stephanie Wissel, assistant professor of physics, is a high energy particle astrophysicist who studies cosmic neutrinos, nearly massless subatomic particles that originate in cataclysmic cosmic events. She uses cosmic neutrinos to open a new window into the universe, informing both our understanding of astrophysics and of fundamental physics at the highest energy scales. Wissel’s goal is to discover the first neutrinos at ultrahigh energies, greater than 100 PeV. She uses radio-detection techniques, which include the ANITA and PUEO experiments, using NASA’s long-duration balloons; the BEACON concept, using mountaintop radio interferometers; and the radio arrays ARA and RNO-G, buried in ice in Antarctica and Greenland, respectively, and serving as pathfinders towards the larger IceCube-Gen2 radio array at the South Pole.

Wissel was honored with an NSF CAREER award, the NSF's most prestigious award in support of early career faculty, in 2018. Her research has been published in scientific journals including Nature, The Astrophysical Journal, the American Journal of Physics, Astroparticle Physics, and Physical Reviews Letters.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Wissel was an assistant professor of physics at the California Polytechnic State University from 2015 to 2019. She was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 2012 to 2015 and at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory from 2010 to 2012. Wissel earned doctoral and master’s degrees in physics at the University of Chicago in 2010 and 2005, respectively. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Dallas in 2004.