Emory biochemist garners $500,000 Career Award for steroid receptor research

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | July 27, 2018

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Quinn Eastman
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qeastma@emory.edu

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The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has chosen biochemist C. Denise Okafor, PhD for a $500,000 Career Award at the Scientific Interface, supporting her research on the evolution of steroid receptors.

A "ribbon diagram" of the hormone-binding domain of steroid receptors is behind her.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has chosen biochemist C. Denise Okafor, PhD for a $500,000 Career Award at the Scientific Interface, supporting her research on the evolution of steroid receptors.

Okafor is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Eric Ortlund’s lab in the Department of Biochemistry; the award will support her transition to a faculty position.  She was one of 11 awardees, out of 287 applicants, according to Burroughs Wellcome. The award is meant for “outstanding young investigators at the postdoctoral level whose work spans the interface between biology and the computational, physical, engineering, or theoretical sciences.”

Okafor is proposing to examine how the protein receptors that bind the steroid hormones diverged from each other in evolution, using allosteric networks. The project will involve a combination of computational modeling, evolutionary biology and biochemistry.

Her research with Ortlund has taken an approach called "ancestral sequence reconstruction," which collects the sequences of proteins in many different organisms living today to infer what those proteins looked like ancestors from millions of years ago. 

"We can ask questions like: how did certain mechanisms evolve in a protein family?" she says. "How have biophysical and structural properties changed over evolution?  What key substitutions have allowed major functional changes in the protein family?"

Okafor’s future research could help scientists understand why tumors develop resistance to drugs that target the estrogen receptor and androgen receptor. They could also provide insights into conditions such as androgen insensitivity syndrome and glucocorticoid resistance. 

Previously as a FIRST (Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching) fellow, Okafor taught biophysical chemistry at Morehouse College, mentored by chemistry professor Lance Young, PhD, who is a former FIRST fellow himself.

"The overall experience was important as practice in taking charge of a classroom, and confirmed that teaching college students is something I enjoy doing," she says.