Issue Date: January 29, 2007
Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal
Sponsored by the Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal Endowment
Laura Kiessling recalls that while growing up in a small Wisconsin town, she always liked math and science even though there were no scientists in her family. "My grandfather took me outside with a telescope, which I really enjoyed," she says. "I also used to go out in the backyard with my brothers to catch tadpoles, and we watched them grow. I think curiosity about how things work is what unites us all as scientists."
Although she enjoyed math and science, Kiessling initially wasn't interested in majoring in chemistry. That changed when she signed up for an undergraduate chemistry class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, taught by Art Ellis. "He was just starting to teach, and he was so enthusiastic," she recalls. "I had gone to a small high school that had no Advanced Placement classes, so I worked really hard in his class. I went to pick up my final exam from him, and I was amazed that he even knew who I was." When he told her that she had earned the highest score on the final exam, Kiessling replied, "I think you have me confused with someone else."
It was at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, Kiessling says, "I took organic chemistry with George M. Whitesides and was hooked. I loved chemistry after that." She acknowledges her good fortune in having incredibly supportive mentors, including Whitesides, Bill Roush, Barry Sharpless, Rick Danheiser, Stuart Schreiber, Samuel Danishefsky, and Peter Dervan. "I've been so lucky because it's made such a difference. One advantage of being a woman is you couldn't be exactly like the people you admired. You have to forge your own path."
Kiessling forged her own path as an innovative researcher using her synthetic organic chemistry talents to solve biological questions. A major focus of her research has been to explore how multivalent interactions influence cell adhesion and cell signaling. To study this problem, she has used small molecules and polymers, the latter of which she has used in new and innovative ways.
Another research focus has been on the role of carbohydrates in mediating cell adhesion. For example, she explored a class of carbohydrate-binding proteins called l-selectins, which are proteins on white blood cells, cells that respond to injury or infection that can also cause inflammation. Kiessling designed multivalent inhibitors that force l-selectins to release from the cell surface. Blocking the function of l-selectin could reduce inflammation since there are fewer cells involved in the immune response. This research has been valuable in the development of a new class of anti-inflammatory drugs.
As an educator, Kiessling is "an engaging and enthusiastic teacher in the classroom and an outstanding mentor in the research laboratory," a colleague says. Students and postdocs from her research group have gone on to successful academic careers. She also actively supports young scientists around the country.
Kiessling has taken on critical leadership roles within the scientific community. She also serves on many prestigious editorial boards, including the Journal of the American Chemical Society and ACS Chemical Biology, where she is editor-in-chief. She is the author of more than 100 publications and has presented her research at many venues.
Kiessling's insight, creativity, and daring have been recognized by the many honors and awards she has received. Most notably, she received a coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1999, as well as an Arthur P. Sloan Fellowship, an ACS Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, and an NSF National Young Investigator Award.
Kiessling received a B.S. in chemistry from MIT in 1983 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale University in 1989. She then segued into a postdoctoral fellowship at California Institute of Technology from 1989 to 1991. She returned to UW Madison, where she has been a faculty member since 1991.
The award address will be presented before the Division of Organic Chemistry.
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