Issue Date: January 1, 2007
ACS Award inPure Chemistry
Sponsored by Alpha Chi Sigma Fraternity and the Alpha Chi Sigma Educational Foundation
Xiaowei Zhuang, 34, trained as a physicist, but these days she's tackling biological problems in the chemistry department at Harvard University. She has risen quickly through Harvard's ranks, having been promoted to full professor after only four-and-a-half years. She is the recipient of this year's ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, which honors outstanding work done at the outset of a researcher's career.
"I consider Xiaowei to be one of the best young investigators working in the area of single-molecule biophysics and spectroscopy," says Ronald D. Vale, a Howard Hughes investigator in the department of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco. "Her career is taking a remarkable trajectory."
Zhuang focuses on using single-molecule optical measurements to study such biological systems as viral infection and the dynamics and function of RNA and ribonucleoprotein enzymes. Her studies of RNA folding revealed kinetic folding intermediates, multiple folding pathways, and heterogeneous conformational dynamics. They also suggested that nonspecific electrostatic interactions play a role in RNA folding analogous to the role of hydrophobic interactions in protein folding. Her current work in this area, which focuses on protein-RNA complexes, uses single-molecule approaches to examine how these complexes assemble and function.
In other recent work, using fluorescence microscopy to track individual virus particles in live cells, she has visualized the individual steps of influenza infection. She has been able to distinguish two pathways that viruses use to get into cells and has shown that different viruses use these pathways differently. "These are challenging cell biological studies and would be daunting to most physicists or chemists," Vale says. "Xiaowei is fearless and will readily learn new techniques and whole new fields."
In addition to using single-molecule techniques, Zhuang is also inventing them. She recently invented a microscopic method called stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy, or STORM, that beats the diffraction limit and accomplishes nanometer spatial resolution. The method is based on the localization of photoswitchable fluorophores. She also developed a single-molecule optical switch that functions as a short-range spectroscopic ruler.
"She has made the clear choice to tackle significant biological problems at the molecular level," says Charles M. Lieber, the Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry at Harvard. "I have been personally amazed at the rapid growth in her knowledge and sophisticated use of chemistry and biology."
Zhuang earned her Ph.D. in 1996 under the supervision of Yuen-Ron Shen in the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley, where she used nonlinear optical spectroscopic techniques to study the surfaces and interfaces of polymers and liquid crystals. Zhuang then moved to Stanford, where she completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Steven Chu.
"Among the distinguished young biophysicists at top institutions, Xiaowei is unique," Shen says. "While others work mainly on physics of biological systems or techniques for biophysics, Xiaowei is more interested in using physics to solve biological problems."
Even at such a young age, Zhuang has already received several prestigious awards. She is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and she received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003.
The award address will be delivered before the Division of Physical Chemistry.—Celia Arnaud
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