Dr. Benjamin P. Tu, an associate professor of biochemistry at UT Southwestern Medical Center, recently became the fifth recipient of the prestigious Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research. The award, worth $100,000, is presented annually and conferred by the Houston-based Welch Foundation, which honors individuals with outstanding achievements in the field of chemistry.
Dr. Tu, having been brought up in a family with a tradition of pursuing scientific research, followed suit by enrolling at Harvard University and studying organic chemistry. After graduating with honors, he pursued a doctoral degree in biophysics and biochemistry at the University of California. After his postgraduate work, he enrolled at the UT Southwestern Medical Center as a post-doctoral researcher in 2004, under the supervision of Dr. Steven McKnight’s laboratory. He later joined the faculty in 2007 as an associate professor.
Dr. Tu’s prolific academic career includes earning the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in Biomedical Sciences, a Sara and Frank McKnight Foundation Fellowship (named after Dr. McKnight’s parents), an AAAS/Science/GE Healthcare Young Scientist Regional Award, and a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering.
Dr. Tu’s research focuses on discovering metabolites and metabolic pathways that affect the abnormal division of cells in cancer as well as the aging process. Rather than using conventional methods of growing cells in a nutrient-rich media, Dr. Tu uses nutrient deficiency as a marker to check for the metabolites and nutritional pathways, which are essential in preventing or inhibiting the division of cells. He had started his experiments with yeast, but later expanded his work to mammalian cells.
Dr. Tu commented on receiving the award, saying, “I am very honored to receive this award and wish to thank all my mentors, colleagues, and trainees who believed in me along the way,” He said. “It is wonderful that the Welch Foundation so generously supports basic chemical research in Texas. This support will help us better understand processes that are fundamental to conditions such as cancer and aging. We hope to continue discovering unforeseen roles for small molecule metabolites in biology, improving our understanding of diseases affected by cellular metabolism.”
Testimonials from Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern Medical Center, and Dr. Steven McKnight, chairman of biochemistry at the UT Southwestern Medical Center, speak volumes on Dr. Tu’s achievements and capabilities. According to Dr. Podolsky, Dr. Tu is an outstanding investigator whose discoveries are at the nexus of biology and chemistry: “Dr. Tu’s work is advancing our’ understanding of what could be a very critical connection between metabolism and the fundamental cellular processes of cell growth, division, and autophagy, the ‘housecleaning’ process through which cells destroy damaged proteins and organelles.” Dr. McKnight further added, “Ben graduated from Harvard with honors, and then did fantastic doctoral work in biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, he has proven to be as good as it gets as an experimental scientist.”