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Okafor receives NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

4 October 2022
Denise Okafor

C. Denise Okafor, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of chemistry, has been awarded the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award. The award, which was established in 2007 and is part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, supports exceptionally creative early career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects in the biomedical, behavioral or social sciences within the NIH mission.

“This grant will allow our lab to tackle some exciting questions with evolutionary biology, machine learning, and drug design,” said Okafor. “We are eager to move into these new directions and hopeful that our work will generate important contributions to the field. I am very grateful for this early support from the NIH!”

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, was created to accelerate the pace of biomedical, behavioral and social science discoveries by supporting exceptionally creative scientists with highly innovative research. The program seeks to identify scientists with high-impact ideas that may be risky or at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process. The program encourages creative, outside-the-box thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas in any area of biomedical, behavioral or social science research relevant to the NIH mission.

“The science advanced by these researchers is poised to blaze new paths of discovery in human health,” said Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., who is performing the duties of the Director of NIH. “This unique cohort of scientists will transform what is known in the biological and behavioral world. We are privileged to support this innovative science.”

Okafor combines computational and experimental investigations to develop a fundamental understanding of how protein function is regulated. She investigates the structural mechanisms of signaling and regulation in protein complexes and uses simulations to determine how conformational dynamics of proteins are altered in different functional states. Okafor employs a broad range of biochemical and structural techniques to carefully elucidate molecular mechanisms that govern the regulation of protein function. By understanding how proteins are regulated, she aims to identify novel strategies to selectively modulate protein function. She focuses her research on molecules known as nuclear receptors, proteins that bind directly to DNA to regulate the expression of nearby genes. These receptors play critical roles in metabolism, development, reproduction and other biological processes, which make them highly attractive therapeutic targets.

“We are thrilled that Denise has received this well-deserved award,” said Tracy Langkilde, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science at Penn State. “This will allow her to continue her innovative research, which tackles understanding the regulation of nuclear receptors and could transform our ability to design and evaluate nuclear receptor drugs.”

Okafor’s previous honors and awards include a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation in 2021, a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface for 2018 to 2023, and selection as a 2019 Keystone Symposia Fellow. She was awarded the Protein Society Hans Neurath Outstanding Promise Travel Award in 2018.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State in 2020, Okafor was a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University School of Medicine from 2015 to 2019, where she held a FIRST (Fellowship in Research and Science Teaching) postdoctoral fellowship from 2015 to 2018. Okafor earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical chemistry at Oral Roberts University in 2007, and a master’s degree in chemistry in 2010 and a doctoral degree in biochemistry in 2015 at the Georgia Institute of Technology.