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Biochemist awarded ASU's coveted Galvin Professorship

Professor Petra Fromme
July 05, 2012

Arizona State University has announced the appointment of Petra Fromme as the Paul V. Galvin Professor of Science and Engineering. The Galvin Professorship was the first endowed professorship at ASU and was established by Motorola in 1959 to honor its founder Paul V. Galvin.

The award recognizes a distinguished scholar in the fields of physical and engineering sciences, with focus on fostering the development of graduate school offerings leading to doctorates in the fields of the physical sciences and engineering. The first holder of ASU’s Galvin Professorship was ASU Regents’ Professor John Cowley, a physicist and namesake of ASU’s J.M. Cowley Center for High Resolution Electron Microscopy. Fromme's professorship is a five-year appointment and took effect on July 1.

“The Galvin appointment honors some of our best in science and engineering,” said Elizabeth D. Capaldi, provost and executive vice president of ASU. “Professor Fromme directs an internationally recognized, collaborative research effort and has published high-impact seminal studies at the interface of biochemistry and biophysics. These efforts, like those of Paul Galvin, are not only shaping the way that research can be done, but the opportunities and skills of the next generation of scientific leaders and entrepreneurs.”

Fromme joined ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2002. An expert in the structural biochemistry and biophysics of membrane proteins, her highly interdisciplinary work has centered on developing understanding about these protein “work horses” of all cells.

Fromme’s early research on the two large pigment-protein complexes involved in photosynthesis, the bio-solar converters Photosystems I and II, was groundbreaking. It took her group 13 years to develop the high-quality crystals for the Photosystem I complex to ultimately allow them to determine its molecular structure. It was Fromme who also solved the structure for Photosystem II ahead of many in the upper echelons of the international crystallography community, including a Nobel Prize winner. 

For decades, scientists have reconstructed the shape of biological molecules and proteins by illuminating crystallized samples with X-rays to study how they scatter the X-rays. Fromme’s studies, undertaken with Regents’ Professor John Spence and professor R. Bruce Doak with the Department of the Physics and other ASU colleagues, have helped reveal the atomic structure of biological nanocrystals and offered a new means for solving protein structures – using an X-ray free-electron laser and methods affectionately known in the field as “Diffract and Destroy.”

Most recently, her work with ASU colleagues launched the first high-resolution experiments employing serial femtosecond crystallography – the split-second imaging of tiny (submicron) crystals using ultrashort, ultrabright X-ray laser pulses. (A femtosecond is one-quadrillionth of a second.)

The femtosecond nanocrystallography technique opens a new area in structural biochemistry, which will allow the development of molecular movies of biomolecules at work. With the determination of the structures no longer limited to the growth of large crystals, diffraction snapshots can be collected from a stream of nanocrystals that contain less than 1,000 molecules using femtosecond X-ray pulses. While each pulse is so strong that it destroys any solid material, it is so short that the structure of the molecule is unraveled before the molecule is destroyed. Recently, the first experiments and steps towards making molecular movies of the photosynthetic process have been performed by Fromme and her colleagues. These studies could enable researchers to view molecular dynamics at a time-scale never observed before.

Fromme recently received a $7.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to reveal how membrane proteins impact the pathways that influence infectious diseases.

“Her research effort and multi-institution team are revolutionizing core understanding about infectious disease and creating exciting developments in medicine and clean energy,” said Robert Page, vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Fromme also has fostered the development of undergraduate and graduate studies in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and programs in Plant Biology and Biological Design in ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

“Professor Fromme’s record of research and teaching accomplishments is truly impressive,” said William Petuskey, associate vice president with ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. “She consistently applies her expertise and enthusiasm to both research and instruction, which has made her a very popular teacher at ASU."

“She is a terrific example of how transdisciplinary scientists and teachers in ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry can produce game-changing breakthroughs that have broad impact,” said Daniel Buttry, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “We are fortunate to count such a talented colleague among our own.”

Fromme received her bachelor's and master's in biochemistry from the Free University and her doctorate in chemistry from the Technical University in Berlin, Germany.  She has published more than 114 peer-reviewed publications and received international honors that include a Lemberg Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Sciences, the Robin Hill Award from the International Photosynthesis Society, the Biologie 2001 Award from the Academy of Science of Göttingen, Germany, and ASU’s 2012 Faculty Achievement Award for Defining Edge Research: Natural Sciences and Mathematics. In addition to these accomplishments, Fromme is the director of the Center for Membrane Protein in Infectious Disease, one of only nine membrane protein centers funded by the Protein Structure Initiative from the National Institutes of Health, and member of the Center of Bio-Inspired Solar Fuel Production, an Energy Frontier Research Center sponsored by the U. S. Department of Energy.