Gierasch Honored with Merrifeld Award

Lila Gierasch
Lila Gierasch

In the latest of her many career honors, Lila Gierasch, Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry and molecular biology, was recently recognized for her “outstanding contributions to peptide science” by the American Peptide Society (APS). She will formally receive its lifetime achievement honor, the Merrifield Award, at a ceremony at the society’s annual meeting in Monterey, California, in June.

Marcey Waters, president of the APS, wrote to Gierasch,“The society is excited to recognize you for your research accomplishments, and we also appreciate your service to the society as former editor of Peptide Science.” Gierasch will present a lecture at the annual meeting and will receive a $25,000 honorarium.

The APS award is named for R. Bruce Merrifield, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1984 for inventing solid phasepeptide synthesis, and his wife, Libby, a biologist by training, who was a collaborator inthe Merrifield laboratory at Rockefeller University for over 23 years.

Gierasch says of the honor, “I am thrilled and honored to be selected to receive the Merrifield Award. From the earliest chapters of my research career I have used synthetic peptides as models for bioactive peptides and proteins. The tools of peptide chemistry have enabled us to ask many exciting questions about biology. Having known Bruce and Libby Merrifield gives this award added significance to me.”

Her long-time colleague and former head of the chemistry department, Craig Martin, says of the honor, “Lila’s visionary work has impressively spanned the range from understanding the fundamentals of peptides in the test tube to understanding the complexity of proteins folding in the cell. An impressive career!”

Gierasch’s research focus for decades has been protein folding, that is, how amino acid sequence determines the three-dimensional structure of a protein. She says, “We use both ‘top down’ approaches by developing methods to observe a folding chain in cells and to perturb the cellular environment through genetic manipulation or environmental influences, and ‘bottom up’ approaches, wherein we mimic the components of the cell and examine their influence on folding.”

Last year, Gierasch received the American Chemical Society’s Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry for “her seminal contributions to peptide structure and function, peptide models for protein folding and function, and roles of peptide and protein aggregation in disease.”

In 2016, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. That same year, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology named Gierasch editor in chief of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the society’s flagship journal, for a five-year term. Steven McKnight, then president of the society, said, “All of us associated with the ASBMB are delighted that Lila Gierasch will assume the editorship of our flagship journal. Lila is distinguished as both a discovery-oriented researcher and a scientific leader.”

In 2014, Gierasch was named to the National Institutes of Health Council of Councils, established to advise the NIH director on policies and activities of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, which includes making recommendations on research that represents important areas of emerging scientific opportunities, rising public health challenges or knowledge gaps that deserve special emphasis or would otherwise benefit from strategic planning and coordination.

Gierasch holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Mount Holyoke College and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University. She started her academic research career at Amherst College in 1974 and movedin 1979 to the University of Delaware, where she rose to full professor. In 1988, she assumed the Robert A. Welch Chair in Biochemistry at the University of TexasSouthwesternMedical Center, where she founded the graduate program in molecular biophysics.Gierasch came to UMass Amherst in 1994 to lead the Chemistry Department, and in 1999 becamehead of the Biochemistry and Department until 2005.