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2023 News Highlights  

September 27, 2023 | HMS researcher to lead $104 million effort to study bacteria and antiniotic resistance

Reviewed by Lily Ramsey, LLM

Helen Zurskaya, Ph.D.

Helen Zgurskaya and Valentin V. Rybenkov from OU will be joining Harvard Medical School researcher Johan Paulsson who will lead a multi-institutional $104 million effort to study bacteria and antibiotic resistance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced today. 

The work is funded by the newly established Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) in an effort to address an unfolding crisis of antibiotic resistance that is expected to get worse as more bacteria become impervious to existing drugs.

Under Paulsson's leadership, scientists from 25 research groups in California, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and the United Kingdom will work to develop novel microscopy, microfluidics, single-cell assays, and machine learning tools into technology for identifying bacteria and understanding their behavior.

Valentin V. Rybenkov, Ph.D.

The researchers plan to use this technology to improve diagnosis of bacterial infections in the clinic, and to aid in the development of more effective antibiotics in the lab. If it succeeds, the research has the potential to drastically transform how bacterial infections are diagnosed and treated.

More broadly, the work will aim to unravel the mysteries of bacterial behavior and the biologic mechanisms of bacterial disease

August 15, 2023 | Department of Energy Early Career Award Recipient to Study Custom Composite Nanocrystals

by Chelsea Julian

Yitong Dong, Ph.D. Demonstrating Nanocrystal Structures in his lab.

Yitong Dong, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, is the only recipient in the state of Oklahoma to have been selected for funding through the 2023 Department of Energy’s Early Career Research Program.

Nanocrystals are a type of building block of nanotechnology that can be used to improve secure communications. Dong’s research group has developed a unique capability to produce extremely small nanocrystals that could enhance the purity of single photon emissions and advance capabilities toward scalable, room-temperature quantum communications.

“The future of quantum information science will enable us to encrypt our information communication in a nearly perfect way that it can never be hacked or eavesdropped,” Dong said. “This relies on quantum light sources, but current quantum light sources have to work at very low temperatures that usually require liquid helium and an ultra-high vacuum to have sufficient emission efficiencies, so that's going to be very expensive if we're looking at scalable quantum communication devices. Our nanocrystals, on the other hand, can emit light at room temperature with really high efficiencies.” 

By adjusting the size of these nanocrystals, some as small as several billionths of a meter, Dong’s research group is studying how the nanocrystals' surface influences how they emit light.

“For this project, we synthesized a very special nanocrystal called perovskite nanocrystal,” Dong said. “They are very, very bright. How they emit light and the color of the light emitted will change as a function of their sizes. As a nanocrystal materials research group, we can make billions or trillions of them with almost identical size, and then we can control their surface.”

Perovskite nanocrystals are easy to make and easily malleable. However, the surface lattices – the crystal units along the surface area of each nanocrystal – vary in their flexibility, which affects their single photon emission performance. The ability to customize the light emitted from these nanocrystals is an important requirement for quantum information network construction and a current gap in the field.

“Our research is targeting the development of single photon emitters using our nanocrystals, which are cheap and work at room temperatures, to enable the future construction of scalable quantum information networks,” Dong said. “What we propose to do in this project is to use a supramolecular matrix where we can embed our tiny nanocrystals into this matrix, and the matrix can rigidify the surface lattice of the nanocrystals.”

This composite material, Dong says, resembles a chocolate chip cookie. “By tuning the rigidity of the supramolecular matrix (the cookie bread), it will anchor the surface of the nanocrystals (chocolate chips) embedded inside of it and thereby rigidify the surface.”

Then, in addition to measuring the stability of this composite material, they will study how the changes in surface rigidity change the single photon emission properties, such as brightness and purity.

“In the end, we're targeting photo coherence,” he said. “Are the photons emitted from the same nanocrystal all the same in terms of their phase and wavelength? If they’re all the same, they’re going to be very useful for the future of quantum computing and quantum communications.”

About the Project

Yitong Dong is the principal investigator of the project, “Understanding the relationship between surface lattice rigidity and single photon emission dynamics in strongly confined cesium lead bromide perovskite quantum dots.” The five-year project is expected to receive approximately $875,000 from the Office of Basic Energy Sciences through the Department of Energy’s Early Career Research Program, beginning July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2028. Dong is one of 93 early career scientists selected to receive a combined $135 million in funding from the 2023 DOE Early Career Research Program designed to develop the next generation of STEM leaders to solidify America’s role as the driver of science and innovation around the world.              

August 7, 2023 | OU Researchers Discover Antifungal Molecule 

by Josh DeLozier

Robert Cichewicz, Ph.D.

Researchers with the University of Oklahoma’s Natural Products Discovery Group recently published findings that indicate a novel breakthrough treatment for fungal infections.

Fungal infections are killing thousands of Americans each year, some with a morbidity rate of nearly 80%. To make matters worse, only a handful of antifungal treatments are available, and even those are becoming less effective as fungi become more resistant. However, University of Oklahoma researchers recently published findings in the Journal of Natural Products indicating that a novel breakthrough treatment may have been discovered.

“The molecule we’re excited about is called persephacin,” said Robert Cichewicz, Ph.D., principal investigator and Regents' Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences at OU. “This antifungal discovery appears to work on a broad spectrum of infectious fungi, and it is reasonably non-toxic to human cells, which is a huge deal because many current treatments are toxic to the human body.”

The rise in fungal infections is due, in part, to the successful treatment of other diseases. As people live longer and successfully undergo treatments like chemotherapy and organ transplants, they often live with weakened immune systems. When drugs that treat arthritis and other ailments that also weaken immune systems are added to the mix, a perfect storm is created for potentially deadly fungal infections.

Cichewicz, who has been researching fungi for nearly 20 years, leads the Natural Products Discovery Group at OU. This team of researchers discovered this novel molecule and developed a unique method for testing plants for their antifungal properties.

“Fungi are found throughout the botanical world, and plants and fungi often work together. Some of these fungi kill competitors or deter insects from eating the plant,” Cichewicz said. “We hypothesized that if these plant-dwelling fungi, known as endophytes, could help the plants fight off infections by killing the invading fungi, then these molecules might also be able to protect humans and animals from fungal pathogens. As it turns out, we were right.”

The team developed a novel way to procure leaf samples using a laser device called the Fast Laser-Enabled Endophyte Trapper, or FLEET. This method helps generate samples in a sterile environment and drastically increases the number of samples that can be acquired.

“Using traditional methods, we could process roughly four to six samples per minute,” Cichewicz said. “But our FLEET system is capable of aseptically generating between 500-600 tissue specimens in 10 minutes. This allows us to rapidly screen more samples and enhances the opportunity for potential drug discoveries.”

With assistance from the Office of Technology Commercialization at the University of Oklahoma, Cichewicz was awarded a U.S. patent for using persephacin to control infectious pathogens.

“It’s taken us a long time to get to this point, but now we’re hoping to work with an industry partner to help us develop this treatment,” Cichewicz said. “Antifungal resistance keeps evolving, and this could provide a new alternative. That’s why this molecule is so exciting.”

Read more about this research in the article, “Percephacin Is a Broad-Spectrum Antifungal Aureobasidin Metabolite That Overcomes Intrinsic Resistance in Apergillus fumigatus,” in the Journal of Natural Products, DOI 10.1021/acs.jnatprod.3c00382

June 28, 2023 | OU Professor Wins Prestigious International Prize From Royal Society of Chemistry

John Peters, Ph.D.

John Peters, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, and his electron bifurcation team have won the prestigious Faraday Horizon Prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry. The team won the award for their biologically inspired discovery that captures energy from renewable sources.

The competitive international Horizon Prize celebrates groundbreaking developments that push the boundaries of science. The Royal Society of Chemistry has recognized excellence in the chemical sciences for more than 150 years.

The electron bifurcation team, a collaboration involving researchers from Duke University, the University of Georgia, the University of Kentucky, Montana State University, Arizona State University, Washington State University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was the only North American team to win the 2023 Horizon Prize.

Peters, a presidential professor at OU, and the team successfully unraveled the rules underpinning how living systems split apart pairs of electrons into high- and low-energy pools without producing energy-wasting “short-circulating” reactions. Such reactions can be used to define new biologically inspired approaches to capture and manipulate energy from renewable sources.

“There is a lot of interest in the energy industry in upcycling fuels to make them more energy efficient and better for the environment,” Peters said. “Our research examines enzymatic catalysis and electron bifurcation to try to inform the Department of Energy about how to make better chemical reactions that would affect the energy industry.”

Peters joined OU in 2022 after serving as director and principal investigator of the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis Energy Frontiers Research Center at Washington State University and Montana State University, where much of the research originated. Peters and the team submitted their application for the Horizon Prize while he was affiliated with Washington State University.

“The Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences congratulates Dr. Peters and the electron bifurcation team on being selected for this highly prestigious recognition of their achievement,” said David Wrobel, dean of the college. “Throughout his career, Dr. Peters has consistently demonstrated creativity, innovation and leadership in fundamental electron transfer reactions in biology that are relevant to energy and agriculture. Dr. Peters joined OU last year from Washington State and brings an extensive record of excellence and national recognition in research. This honor illustrates the caliber of faculty we attract to OU who are driving our research mission forward.”

At Washington State University, Peters served as professor, director of the Institute of Biological Chemistry and special adviser to the Vice President for Research for Strategic Research Initiatives. He previously served as professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Undergraduate Program Committee at Montana State University.

Peters earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Oklahoma. He earned his doctorate in biochemistry from Virginia Tech University and was an NIH postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology. Peters also received the Cozzarelli Prize from the National Academy of Sciences in 2020.

For more information about the Faraday Horizon Prize, visit

April 19, 2023 | Department Newsletter, Sooner Elements, Published

We are pleased to release the Spring 2023 edition of Sooner Elements, our department newsletter. As you will see, we have lots of great news to share with you and the larger community! Through communicating these and future news on a regular basis, we hope to build a more engaging and supportive community for our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends.   

This newsletter was made possible through the efforts of two student editors (Carly Wickizer and Chance Lander) and one staff editor (Amelia Beste). Please let them know if you have any comments or suggestions for future editions.   

Our department used to publish an annual newsletter, APEX (Alumni Program in Excellence), with the last edition released in 2002. We are proud to revive the tradition.  

Go Sooner Elements!

Sooner Elements Newsletter (pdf)

April 12, 2023 | Dr. Clifford awarded General Education Teaching Award

Laura Clifford

The General Education Teaching Award recognizes contributions to the university's general education program. Since joining the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry faculty in 2005, she has been invested in improving the General Chemistry program through teaching the large general chemistry lecture courses, developing new course materials and coordinating with many undergraduate instructional units to ensure student success. She also developed an online course for non-science majors. Her lectures in General Chemistry 1315 and 1415 often begin with 'Chemistry of the Day,' a short link between the lecture content and the interesting chemistry in every day life, something students have cited in their evaluations as their favorite part of the course.

Congratulations to Dr. Laura Clifford who has been awarded the General Education Teaching Award!

April 12, 2023 | Dr. Wu awarded Neal Lane Award for Excellence in Research in the Natural Sciences

Si Wu

Dr. Wu's research focuses on the rapid identification, characterization, and quantification of proteins in the understanding of protein functionality. This is critical to understanding cellular pathways and human disease. She is currently the editor of the Journal of Mass Spectrometry, and her recognitions include being featured in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences as Young Scientist of the Year and winning the US Human Proteome Organization's Robert J. Cotter New Investigator Award in 2020.

Congratulations to Dr. Si Wu who has been awarded the Neal Lane Award for Excellence in Research in the Natural Sciences!