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Chemistry Professor's Research Featured in Top Science Journal

RELEASED: Nov. 9, 2005

Dr. Jason Halfen
Dr. Jason Halfen

EAU CLAIRE — Dr. Jason Halfen, professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is a corresponding author on an article published this month in Science, one of the premier multi-field science journals in the world.

The groundbreaking research described in the paper is the result of work by an eight-person research team from four universities. Besides Halfen, who teaches inorganic chemistry at UW-Eau Claire, the authors include three chemists from the University of Minnesota, three from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and one from Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea.

Their Science paper describes the preparation and characterization of a compound that mimics the behavior of a key liver enzyme, cytochrome P450, which is responsible for the metabolism of many chemical compounds and toxins that people put into their bodies. It is the first time that some of the key features in this enzyme have been duplicated.

"While cytochrome P450 has been the subject of intense study for decades, there remains little direct information about the key enzymatic intermediates that actually perform the reactions responsible for conversion of toxic compounds into more water-soluble forms," Halfen said. "The existence of our compound indicates that the key components of cytochrome P450 can actually be found in a stable molecule, and that the combination of these specific components generates characteristic reactivity pathways that parallel those of the enzyme."

The article also was selected for advance electronic publication on "This week in Science Express," part of the Science Web site. The fact that the paper was chosen for early publicity by the Science editors means that it is the "cream of the cream," said Scott Hartsel, chair of the UW-Eau Claire chemistry department.

Hartsel said it's unusual, in fact "almost unheard-of," for a person at an undergraduate institution to publish in the prestigious journal Science.

"Jason also is often our top-rated classroom instructor," said Hartsel, noting that Halfen received a prestigious Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar award in 2001 and a Dreyfus Foundation start-up award when he came to UW-Eau Claire. "It is certain that his students at all levels gain from his experience on the leading edge of science. His work, along with others in our department, illustrates that scholarly work does not detract from teaching but can enhance it."

Halfen has worked in his research laboratory with 17 different UW-Eau Claire students, some for as long as three years. He said his research students receive detailed laboratory training in his field of synthetic inorganic chemistry and have the opportunity to travel to national meetings of the American Chemical Society to present their results.

Since 1997, undergraduate students have co-authored 15 of Halfen's 22 publications, including the three publications that were direct predecessors to the Science paper. Of the 14 students who graduated from UW-Eau Claire after working in his laboratory, seven have pursued graduate education in chemistry. One earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and three others have received master's degrees.

"Participating in high quality, externally supported, nationally visible research as undergraduates put these students at a competitive advantage over their peers who do not receive undergraduate research experience," Halfen said.

The results of his research laboratory also spill into Halfen's work as a classroom and laboratory instructor. "I incorporate current research results, from my lab or from others' labs around the world, into lecture discussions as a way to illustrate fundamental chemical concepts," he said. "In my upper-level inorganic chemistry course, students leave their textbooks behind and instead learn about the breadth and depth of inorganic chemistry by reading and analyzing the current research literature. In this way, students learn that inorganic chemistry is a living, vibrant field that's best experienced as an active participant, rather than a passive observer."

The fruits of this research-based instructional approach can be seen in the performance of these advanced students on standardized inorganic chemistry exams administered across the country. In spring 2005, Halfen's students scored in the 89th percentile on this exam.

"While none of these students has conducted research with me, each has been involved at some point in a collaborative research project with a UW-Eau Claire chemist," Halfen said. "A research-rich instructional approach can truly pay dividends to our students, dividends which are enhanced by participating faculty-student collaborative research."

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JW/JB

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