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Carolyn Bertozzi receives award for chemistry in the public interest

Carolyn Bertozzi smiles in front of blurred bamboo grove
Apr 8 2019

Baker Family Co-Director of Stanford ChEM-H, Carolyn Bertozzi, has been recognized with the 2019 Gustavus John Esselen Award for Chemistry in the Public Interest for her work in manipulating the complex sugar coating on cell surfaces.

By Rebecca McClellan

Carolyn Bertozzi, Baker Family Co-Director of Stanford ChEM-H, is the 2019 recipient of the Gustavus John Esselen Award for Chemistry in the Public Interest. The award is presented annually by the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society to an individual whose research contributes to public well-being and communicates the value of the chemical profession.

Bertozzi, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the Department of Chemistry, School of Humanities and Sciences, is recognized for her pioneering work in bioorthogonal chemistry, a term that refers to any reaction that can occur inside or outside a cell without interfering with the cell’s normal functions. These methods provide scientists with a chemical toolbox to study, understand, and manipulate parts of the cell. In many cases, the methods have led to better ways to diagnose, prevent, or treat diseases, among other applications.  

For many years, Bertozzi focused on building the toolbox of bioorthogonal chemistry, but eventually she realized that developing reactions that could somehow, someday have an impact on human health wasn’t enough. She needed to follow through. “Early in my career, my lab pursued work that we thought was interesting and useful,” she says. “Later, I started to feel urgency about pursuing research with a direct impact on patients, and I realized we needed to get busy.”

Her research program has evolved from developing fundamental methods to chemically label and visualize the complex sugary coating on cell surfaces to tackling some of the biggest medical problems facing our world. Her contributions include developing a fast and reliable tuberculosis test that could function in a point-of-care scenario and understanding why certain immunotherapies are more effective in some patients over others.

“Her contributions to public well-being extend beyond her research and into her roles as a mentor, entrepreneur, and thought leader,” said Chaitan Khosla, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering and Baker Family Co-Director of Stanford ChEM-H. Bertozzi has used her platform as founder and editor-in-chief of ACS Central Science, the first open-access American Chemical Society journal, to highlight issues in chemistry such as gender imbalance, laboratory safety, and the challenges facing postdoctoral fellows. 

Bertozzi will be presented with the award at a ceremony at Harvard University’s Mallinckrodt Chemistry Laboratories on the evening of April 11, 2019. She will be giving a public lecture entitled “Chemical Approaches to Problems in Global Health.”