Patricia L. Clark has received a Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health. These awards are given to exceptionally creative scientists advancing high-risk, high-impact research. Clark is the first researcher in Indiana to receive this distinguished award since the program’s inception in 2004. She is the Rev. John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C., Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and associate vice president for research at the University of Notre Dame.

Clark will use the award to develop new experimental approaches to measure the sensitivity of proteins to so-called silent changes in the DNA sequence. She studies how proteins, the powerhouses of human cells, fold or misfold into three-dimensional shapes as they are synthesized and secreted across cell membranes. Misfolded proteins can lead to a variety of diseases, from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. Clark will use the $5 million, five-year NIH award to develop new experimental approaches to measure the sensitivity of proteins to silent changes in the DNA sequence.

“I was elated when I received the score for my proposal,” Clark said of the historic award. “The research questions that my laboratory is pursuing are fundamental questions about how biomolecules are synthesized, fold and function. I am honored that the review panel, which was composed of both clinicians and basic science researchers, appreciates the importance of understanding these fundamental mechanisms in order to ultimately improve human health.”

Clark, who is also director of Notre Dame’s Biophysics Instrumentation Core Facility, uses bacteria as a model for her studies, but her goal is to discover mechanisms that apply to all organisms, including humans.

“Patricia Clark conducts extraordinary and innovative research, and we are so proud that she does that work here at Notre Dame,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost of the University of Notre Dame. “The prestigious NIH Director’s Pioneer Award indicates that the University is cultivating the people and the environment for groundbreaking research.”

Clark’s Pioneer Award was one of only 10 awarded by the NIH this year and one of 106 grants made in NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, representing approximately $329 million in funding over five years.

“The science put forward by this cohort is exceptionally novel and creative and is sure to push at the boundaries of what is known,” NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins said in a news release. “These visionary investigators come from a wide breadth of career stages and show that groundbreaking science can happen at any career level given the right opportunity.”

Clark joined the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 2001. She is a recipient of the Biophysical Society’s Michael and Kate Bárány Award, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation and a Medical Research Award from the W.M. Keck Foundation, and has twice received Notre Dame’s Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Before joining Notre Dame, she spent four years as a postdoctoral scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, funded by an NIH National Research Service Award fellowship. Clark holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Georgia Institute of Technology and a doctorate in molecular biophysics from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas.

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