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Benkovic '60 earns coveted Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science



Stephen J. Benkovic ’60

Stephen J. Benkovic ’60 recently received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, one of the world’s most venerable science and technology award programs. Other Franklin Institute Award laureates have included Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Marie and Pierre Curie, and Jane Goodall.

The Franklin Institute, a science museum and education center located in Philadelphia, presented the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Medal to Benkovic and five other scientists, each representing different fields of study, during a black-tie event held April 23.

The award recognized Benkovic, the Evan Pugh professor and Eberly Family Chair in chemistry at Penn State University, for his research on enzymes. The Institute’s citation praises Benkovic for “groundbreaking contributions to our mechanistic understanding of enzymes and for helping to unravel the complexities of enzymes involved in DNA replication.”

Benkovic is also known for co-writing what are considered the first bioorganic text books focusing on enzyme mechanisms, Bioorganic Mechanisms, Volumes I and II, originally published in 1966. But he is perhaps, proudest of the more than 70 tenured professors he advised, including Keith Schray, Lehigh professor of chemistry.

As a young professor, Benkovic examined DNA polymerase, an enzyme that helps copy genetic material, and dihydrofolate reductase, an enzyme that is a target for anti-cancer drugs.

Scientists at the time theorized that only a small portion of an enzyme affected its ability to initiate and speed up chemical reactions, according to the film on the Franklin Institute’s Web site. Benkovic believed that the remaining portion of the enzyme must play an important role as well. By changing this region, he inhibited the enzyme’s ability to catalyze reaction, and conclusively demonstrated that the whole enzyme participates in chemical reactions.

With this understanding, scientists could now create pharmaceuticals to target the entire enzyme. Some of Benkovic’s other research has been used in cancer treatments, and to make better anti-viral and anti-bacterial medications.

Lehigh’s role in his life

Before Benkovic became enamored with enzymes, he had enrolled at Lehigh University as an engineering major. He quickly learned that he was less interested in applying facts and theories than discovering them. As a result, Benkovic transferred to Lehigh’s five-year arts-engineering program and completed two degrees, a bachelor of science in chemistry and a bachelor of arts in English.

“It was very valuable for my career,” he says. His English courses have helped him write more than 500 research papers, speak in public, and derive greater pleasure from reading.

Benkovic’s chemistry degree steered him into his current field. He learned to appreciate basic research from Jerome Daen, Lehigh professor of chemistry and the adviser for Benkovic’s honors research project. Daen also helped Benkovic select Cornell University for his graduate chemistry program. Another chemistry professor, Tom Young, introduced Benkovic to biochemistry.

“A love for research and an interest in biochemistry were engendered in me by those two professors,” Benkovic says.

Career direction was not the only thing Benkovic discovered at Lehigh, he also met his future wife, Patricia, there—despite the fact that university was then a “monastic order,” as Benkovic says. Patricia’s grandmother owned an off-campus boarding house which was rented by many Lehigh students, including several members of Benkovic’s fraternity, Delta Chi. Benkovic met Patricia while she was in the Lehigh Valley visiting her grandmother, and “one thing led to another,” Benkovic says.

”Peach of a person” helps Schray along the way

After Benkovic graduated from Cornell University, he became an assistant professor at Penn State University. The first graduate student he advised was Keith Schray, Lehigh professor of organic chemistry and faculty adviser for Alpha Chi Sigma (AXE) Chemistry Fraternity.

“He was a wonderful graduate student,” Benkovic says of Schray. “He was brave enough to study with a guy who was setting up his lab.”

Schray believes that his decision to work with Benkovic “was the second best decision I’ve made in my life.” Marrying his wife was the first.

“He is a peach of a person.” Schray says that as a graduate student, he worked with both Stephen and Patricia Benkovic, who assisted her husband throughout his career.

“She is his lieutenant. She does research as well as manages the lab,” Schray says.

Schray graduated from Penn State University in 1970 and entered a post-doctoral program at the Institute of Cancer Research in Philadelphia. When Schray completed his post-doctorate in 1972, he contacted his former adviser for guidance as to what faculty positions were available. At the same time, Lehigh University needed a chemistry professor and asked Benkovic if he could recommend anyone. Benkovic suggested Schray.

“This has turned out to be a pretty great place for me,” says Schray, who values the opportunity to both teach and conduct research.

Throughout their careers, Schray and Benkovic have remained in contact and occasionally collaborated on research projects. Schray attended Benkovic’s 60th and 70th birthday parties, and they had the opportunity to meet when Benkovic returned to Bethlehem to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Lehigh in 1995.

The doctorate degree was one of many honors bestowed on Benkovic. In the past, he has been give the Eastman Kodak Scientific Award, the Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, the National Institutes of Health Career Development Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Pfizer Enzyme Award, the National Institutes of Health Merit Award, the Bicentennial Scientific Achievement Award of the City College of New York, the Mereck Award of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Nakanishi Prize of the American Chemical Society and many more. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Benkovic also serves on the journal Science’s board of reviewing editors, as well as reviewing several other scientific journals. He is on several advisory boards, including one for the Geisinger Hospital.

--Becky Straw


Posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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