November 27, 2022
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BE native building ‘luminescent’ research career in CA | News, Sports, Jobs

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“A lot of what we know in biology has come from developing ways to see things,” says Jennifer Prescher, UCI associate professor of chemistry. “Imagine if you could walk into a clinic and watch your immune system in action. We would understand a lot more about how it’s working, and we’d be able to craft much better interventions when disease occurs.”

Steve Zylius / UCI

Chemistry has garnered a reputation as a difficult subject.

However, Jenn Prescher, who recently won the prestigious American Chemical Society (ACS) Cope Scholar Award for her work in bioluminescence imaging, thinks this is an unfair assessment.

“Chemistry usually has a very negative connotation, but it doesn’t deserve it,” the professor and researcher of chemical biology insists.

Prescher began her love affair with science in Blue Earth, where she was raised by parents Willie and Barb Prescher.

“I was very fortunate to be a part of the Blue Earth Area school system,” Prescher reflects. “I walked away with a very solid knowledge in not only science and math, which I’m particularly interested in, but also great fundamentals in reading and writing.”

Prescher remembers the late Dan Gilpin as one of her favorite teachers at Blue Earth High School.

“He planted an initial seed of interest in being able to make stuff, and think about molecules,” she says. “He was very inspiring.”

Following high school, Prescher attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where she commenced her robust career in scientific research.

“I was more interested in math and engineering heading into college,” Prescher admits. “But, when I took chemistry classes it was fun for me – like a puzzle.”

Recognizing her passion and potential, Prescher’s organic chemistry instructor encouraged her involvement in a university research project.

“We basically designed small molecular probes to look at serotonin receptors,” Prescher explains. The probes provided insight into how receptors function.

“Through working in this research lab, I discovered you could basically do research for a living,” Prescher says. Needless to say, she was hooked.

Prescher applied for graduate school after earning her B.S. in chemistry. She was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a Ph.D. in chemistry.

During her time at Berkeley, Prescher had the opportunity to work alongside Carolyn Bertozzi, who was recently awarded 2022’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in developing click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.

“In her lab, I did a mix of chemistry and biology,” Prescher recalls. “I first got exposed to how you can use both chemistry and biology to make discoveries.”

Their research centered upon using chemical principles and tools to understand biology, manipulating chemical reactions in organisms which could be used to track, or tag, specific particles, and therefore image cells’ sugar structures.

“(Sugar structures) often change the physiological state of the cell,” Prescher notes.

As such, the work has important applications in the field of medical research, where it can be used as a diagnostic tool. For example, Prescher explains the sugar structures of a cancerous cell appear differently than those of a regular cell.

After her time at Berkeley, Prescher became a molecular imaging scholar at Stanford University, where she was able to learn more about medical imaging.

“I started my own imaging group from there,” Prescher says. “I used chemical probes and chemical tools to basically image biological processes.”

Through her current research at University of California-Irvine, Prescher applies the same reaction which a firefly uses to produce light to manipulate cells. She captures the cells’ light-emitting reactions through an imaging technique called ‘bioluminescence imaging.’

“We use that to track metastatic cancer cells,” Prescher says.

She was recently recognized for her work with the 2023 Cope Scholar Award, a highly prestigious award which celebrates excellence in organic chemistry research.

The award consists of a $5,000 prize, a certificate and a $40,000 unrestricted research grant. Recipients are also invited to deliver an awards address at the Arthur C. Cope Symposium at the Fall ACS National Meeting.

Prescher is one of 10 2023 Cope Scholars from around the world. Her colleague, professor Suzanne Blum, became a 2023 Cope Scholar this year as well.

“We both individually happened to win the award,” Prescher says. “There are only a few given out every year, and we both happened to be in the same department.”

Prescher adds, “Not a lot of women have won the award.” She cites the development as an admirable reflection of University of California-Irvine’s world-class chemistry department.

The award’s $40,000 unrestricted research grant offers Prescher a great opportunity to pursue unique projects in the future.

“(Unrestricted grants are) often best used to pilot really wacky ideas that tax-payer dollars are not going to fund,” she explains. “I kind of reserve them for pie-in-the-sky work.”

A mentor to many promising young chemists at University of California-Irvine, Prescher often gets to pursue new projects alongside bright, motivated students. It is one of the things she enjoys most about her work.

“I get to be a part of their discoveries in the lab, and also be a part of their journeys as they start to set their own career paths,” she says. “It’s the thrill of discovery, but also educating the next generation.”

Prescher views chemical biology as an integral and promising field of future research.

“Having a background in chemistry is extraordinarily powerful in biology,” Prescher says. “Biology is chemistry. Knowing how to think about biomolecules, and all those processes, is very powerful. It can have a major impact.”

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