INCREMENTAL IMPACT: Texas A&M Chemist Makes a Difference by Emphasizing Basics
Original article appeared in the Summer 2012 edition of Spirit magazine, produced by the Texas A&M Foundation
COLLEGE STATION -- In the fast-paced, high-stakes realm of research and development, it's the little things that figure big into every breakthrough.
Texas A&M University chemist Dr. Kevin Burgess makes an impact best measured in increments -- minute markers in a career dedicated to getting the approach to his science right. For Burgess, relevant academic research is the name of the game, and after 20 years at the crossroads of synthetic and biological chemistry, every thing's adding up, both for chemical discoveries and big-picture science.
Seeds of Success
A non-traditionalist on a campus steeped in it, Burgess has emerged as one of the most innovative and influential organic chemists of his generation via important contributions in several areas that transcend traditional chemical research.
"Eventually, I would like to say I've helped to make the process of drug design easier and to integrate organic chemistry into biotechnology, even if it's just incrementally so," he said. "I really don't care about what I've accomplished so far; I care more about what we're going to do."
From new laboratory space and enterprising ventures to critical funding and the right campus collaborations, it's all falling into place for Burgess, who joined the Texas A&M faculty in 1992 and has served since 2004 as the inaugural holder of the Rachal Chair in Chemistry. The chair was endowed with a gift from the Corpus Christi-based Ed Rachal Foundation -- created by an endowment from Ed Rachal's will to benefit charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes in the state of Texas -- in combination with contributions from other donors.
Burgess' life's work involves making chemistry more efficient for industries that span the gamut of medicinal research and pharmacology. He designs compounds, dubbed "Frankenstein molecules," to disrupt protein-protein interactions that impact a host of diseases, including cancer, diabetes and neurological disorders. In addition, he is developing new fluorescent dyes to monitor these disruptions, paving the way for potential spectroscopic imaging tools useful in cell biology and pharmaceutically related areas.
Collaborating with Dr. Lisa Perez of the Texas A&M Laboratory for Molecular Simulation and Professor Tom Ioerger in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Burgess is developing a computational approach to aid the process of finding small molecules that will disrupt protein-protein inter actions. These molecules could then guide toxic or imaging agents to tumors, resulting in big possibilities in medicine as well as fundamental research.
"Related to that, I have an interest in fluorescent dyes that can be used to tag proteins so that when they do interact with themselves, we can study these interactions to learn additional information about the overall process and potential," Burgess said. "I'm very excited about my collaboration with Tom and Lisa, which looks promising. I feel like we're close to something that will keep us doing good research for a long time."
Detailed by Design
In a competitive world in which researchers sometimes make improbable claims and predictions for the sake of applied marketability or increased funding, Burgess remains a rare bird in his dogged adherence to accuracy and pure love of the game (versus reaping its rewards). The application of his research is difficult to pin down because for Burgess, both the devil and due credit lie in the details.
"I don't want to overstate the case and have people think that what we're doing is curing diseases like cancer," he said. "What we are doing is just a tiny part of what goes on in this area, and it impacts early stage development [of drug design] the most."
Burgess credits his international recognition to many factors, from exceptional students and research colleagues to the unparalleled resources and collegial support he believes epitomize Texas A&M.
"It's a huge campus, so there are many opportunities to collaborate with people who have different skills," Burgess said. "In the chemistry department, we have a good supply of talented graduate students and a wonderful infrastructure for doing synthetic organic chemistry supported by computational methods for modeling molecules."
In the laboratory sciences, there is no bigger prize than space -- the more modern, the better. Later this year, Burgess and his group will stake their claim to one of the finest, taking up research residence in the Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building (ILSB). Ever the pragmatist, Burgess recognizes the move for the opportunity it is, both for his team and his science.
"My group has been distributed in various labs throughout campus, so moving to the ILSB will give us an opportunity to work together in one place," he said. "And we'll have resources for tissue culture that we currently have to borrow."
Burgess is quick to note that he's free to concentrate on such grand challenges in part because he has guaranteed resources such as an endowed chair. He uses chair proceeds as critical bridge funding to support his exploratory research -- a vital step in the overall discovery process that often leads to new ideas for subsequent studies, many of which end up funded through larger research grants versus private funds.
"The endowed Rachal Chair helps a lot, as does our administration, especially Dean Newton, who has been extremely supportive," he said. "The chair gives us a good basis of seed funding, if you will, to support such early endeavors."
Down to a Science
If Burgess' past is any indication, he's a solid investment. His proven track record of excellence features simultaneous funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and The Robert A. Welch Foundation. In January, he started his own company, Small Molecule PPI Mimics, to capitalize on some of his discoveries and further aid in research development.
Beyond his individual and interdisciplinary research, Burgess also contributes to chemistry in multiple ways. He has co-authored monthly contributions to the journal Chemistry & Industry for more than two decades and written a graduate textbook, Organic Chemistry By Inquisition. Accomplishment aside, however, Perez said Burgess is never content to rest on his laurels nor to sit back and let others make the progress he believes is possible.
"I have been collaborating with Kevin for many years and have always found him to be an energetic and innovative researcher," Perez said. "He is not one to simply follow the beaten path. Our latest collaboration has been particularly exciting and is a prime example of his forward-thinking character."
To learn more about Burgess and his research, click here.
For more information on endowed chairs and professorships or other giving opportunities to benefit scientific teaching and research, visit http://giving.tamu.edu.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or email@example.com or Dr. Kevin Burgess, (979) 845-4345 or firstname.lastname@example.org