1998 QUANTRELL AWARD: Joseph PiccirilliAssistant Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
By Sharon Parmet
For Joseph Piccirilli, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, winning the Quantrell Award came as quite a surprise.
"I'm very excited," he said. "I work hard to try to do a good job, and I enjoy it, but I never expected anything like this to happen. Organic chemistry is not generally a class that students like."
Piccirilli teaches BioOrganic Chemistry II, the second quarter of a three-quarter sequence for sophomores. The sequence is unique in that it teaches the concepts of organic chemistry from a biological perspective.
"Most organic chemistry courses don't teach within the context of biological systems, an approach that is important for the student because biology is becoming more and more molecular," he said. "The processes that occur in our bodies, such as vision or digesting the food we eat, are fundamentally chemical reactions, and to really understand them, you need to understand organic chemistry."
Piccirilli's current research integrates organic chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology to address fundamental questions about gene expression. Piccirilli has focused on a specific stage of gene expression called "splicing."
All living systems have DNA; nucleic acids that encode information as how to make proteins. To create proteins, the DNA must first be transcribed into RNA, a messenger molecule that can be translated into a protein by the cell. But not all of the RNA contains information related to how to make proteins -- some of it encodes for nothing at all. These stretches of "junk" RNA, or introns, must be spliced out, and the exons, or informational part of the RNA, must be joined together before the RNA can be translated into a protein. Piccirilli's research focuses on this process at the molecular level.
Some of the College students in Piccirilli's class have the opportunity to work in his lab, where they learn nucleic acid chemistry. By manipulating RNA molecules using principles from organic chemistry, the students can achieve a greater level of precision in the questions they ask and in the answers they obtain. "The lab is a fertile training ground for young scientists interested in problems at the interface between chemistry and biology," Piccirilli said.
Piccirilli received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1989 and carried out a portion of his Ph.D. work at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology as a Harvard Traveling Scholar. After conducting postdoctoral work at the University of Colorado-Boulder, he joined the Chicago faculty in 1993. In addition to his appointment in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, he is Assistant Professor in Chemistry and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.