Distinguished Research Professorships


By Communications Staff
Thursday, April 24, 2003
Shiva Singh
Peter Guthrie
Prof. Peter Guthrie, Department of Chemistry, and Prof. Shiva Singh, Department of Biology, are the 2003-2004 recipients of the Distinguished Research Professorships in the Faculty of Science.

These awards release qualified science faculty from their teaching duties for one year to focus on innovative research.

"The Distinguished Research Professorship program is one way in which the Faculty of Science helps creative colleagues to achieve scientific success," says Prof. Duncan Hunter, Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Science.

"I'm honoured, there's no doubt about it," says Singh. "I feel very honoured to have the opportunity to be called Distinguished Research Professor in Science. I mean, there are a lot of very good researchers in this faculty. Every department has some very outstanding people and to be picked among them as one of the top two, I can't imagine a higher honour that anybody could receive at home."

Singh will take this opportunity to concentrate his research along two lines. One is the epigenetic control of schizophrenia, which means that, although the DNA sequence is fine, there is something that's causing misregulation or misexpression of some of the genes involved in schizophrenia. His current focus is on DNA methylation of the genes of chromosome 22.

The other project is the analysis of a large body of data generated by the use of Affymetrix Gene Chips as a, "way of approaching identifying genes that may be involved in things like alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome."

Although these studies are independent, they are interrelated by their use of similar technology. "I think that those two research projects will keep me very busy," says Singh. "I have a feeling that the first one in schizophrenia is going to be more challenging and it will take a lot of groundwork because nobody in this town makes gene-chips." Singh's work, in collaboration with others, will add to the bioinformatics initiative that involves an interdisciplinary genome-wide approach to research.

Guthrie is focussing on developing a method to predict the rates of reactions. He gives the following example to illustrate the problem: "You know how dangerous it is when some natural gas leaks into a room and mixes with air. But you also know that it is unreactive, it can sit there for a hundred years and nothing will happen, but the first spark will detonate and blow the room apart. That is, you have to put energy into the molecules before they can start reacting… That's the problem, why is there this barrier for any chemical reaction? Why do you have to supply energy?"

Guthrie has developed a computer program to analyse reactions and find those barriers. "It's a new way of thinking about reactions. It makes a whole bunch of things easy to explain," says Guthrie. Such analyses can offer explanations as to why DNA is so unreactive and persists as stable genetic material. There are also applications for the synthetic chemist, out of the myriad of possible reactions to choose from for a desired compound, Guthrie's program will be able to estimate the speed of the best alternatives. "You'll be able to start thinking quantitatively as well as qualitatively."

Guthrie says that when he found out the good news about the distinguished research [professorship, it was an "enormous relief that I was going to be able to really focus on this, because I have been expecting that I would be waiting another year and I'd apply for a sabbatical but to be able to do it now…. This is such a wonderful opportunity to have a year to really focus on it."

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