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2016 Protein Science Best Paper Awards


Protein Science Best Paper Awards to Tracy Clinton and Michael Thompson

Warmest congratulations to Tracy Clinton1 and Michael Thompson2 (Figure 1), the recipients of the Protein Society's Year 2015 "Best Paper" awards.

At the beginning of each year, two "best papers" are selected from articles published in Protein Science during the preceding 12 months. A junior author (typically the first author) is designated as the award winner and invited to give a talk at the following Annual Protein Society Symposium.

Tracy Clinton is an Air Force biochemist who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Utah through the Air Force graduate education civilian institute program. As Tracy puts it, "I am passionate about science and earning my Ph.D. was a wonderful way to further my scientific education while working in an area of biological relevance to my career. The research I had the privilege to take part in was both exciting and challenging and allowed me to bring many new skills and knowledge back to my professional life. I am very thankful for the opportunity to be a small part of the great things that Dr. Kay's lab has and will continue to achieve."

Michael Kay comments on Tracy's somewhat non-traditional career path as follows.

"Interestingly, I first met Tracy at the 2009 Protein Society Symposium in Boston, where I presented our work on developing D-peptide inhibitors of HIV entry. Tracy was then an Air Force chemist serving as an instructor at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. She was applying for a special Air Force program that provided a three-year leave to pursue Ph.D. training at a civilian university. Tracy was selected for this competitive program and thankfully decided to pursue her Ph.D. work in my lab at the University of Utah starting in late 2010. Tracy's strong interest in translational research problems in biodefense was a perfect fit with our embryonic efforts to apply D-peptide design to block Ebola entry. Working closely with Dr. Debra Eckert, Tracy launched the Ebola project in our lab, developing and validating the Ebola drug target mimics described in the Protein Science paper. These mimics provide the foundation for our lab's active D-peptide discovery program, which has generated over $3 million in NIH funding (in collaboration with a local startup company, Navigen). Tracy's accelerated Ph.D. is unprecedented in my experience. From day one, you could say that she was "on a mission", operating with a sense of urgency, focus, and intensity that would have destroyed most students. A key factor in Tracy's success on this challenging project was her ability to train and manage a large collaborative team, as evidenced by the paper's long author list."

Michael Thompson grew up in the San Fernando Valley area, outside of Los Angeles, and was an undergraduate at UC-Berkeley (degree 2007), in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. While at Berkeley, he worked as a research assistant in Tom Alber's lab, where he developed interests in protein crystallography and in understanding how conformational changes control the functions of proteins. He then attended graduate school at UCLA (degree 2014), under the mentorship of Todd Yeates.

Todd says "Mike was a terrific graduate student (now a postdoc with Jamie Fraser at UCSF).

In terms of technical interests, Mike stands out among other students in the degree to which he insisted on getting at the heart of many of the crystallography problems he faced while working on the structures of bacterial microcompartment shell proteins in my lab. They tend to form flat sheets (which is their function), and crystals often showed lattice translocations or other kinds of disorders. Mike worked through such cases rather than abandoning them, and as a result became one of the most deeply knowledgeable students in crystallography that I have had.

On the biology side, Mike was determined to dissect the mechanisms of molecular transport through a dynamic shell protein, and this turned out to be a tough problem. He got partial answers early on, but the story was incomplete (and faced unfavorable publishing decisions) until he finally figured out the allostery component: the interior substrate holds the large pore in the closed conformation so that the toxic aldehyde intermediate doesn't escape into the cytosol while the microcompartment is actively metabolizing. It took a lot of perseverance to get to the finish line.

Mike is dedicated to mechanism at the fine scale. He came out of Tom Alber's lab as an undergraduate where he had some exposure to the early work on dissecting alternate conformations in proteins. He continued his technical and mechanistic interests in my group, and now with Jamie Fraser where he continues along that path.

As a senior student, Mike was an intellectual leader in my lab and really for other structure labs at UCLA as well. He's an academic at heart, with very high scientific standards. It's nice to see him recognized."

Background Information

All articles published in Protein Science are candidates for the "Best Paper" awards. No nomination statement is required. At the same time, if authors submitting a manuscript feel that it will be a strong candidate for a "best paper" award, they are very welcome to include a brief note in the submission letter explaining why the contribution is especially worthy of consideration.




1. Clinton TR, Weinstock MT, Jacobsen MT, Szabo-Fresnais N, Pandya MJ, Whitby FG, Herbert AS, Prugar LI, McKinnon R, Hill CP, Welch BD, Dye JM, Eckert DM, Kay MS (2015) Design and characterization of ebolavirus GP prehairpin intermediate mimics as drug targets. Protein Sci 24:446-463.

2. Thompson MC, Cascio D, Leibly DJ, Yeates TO (2015) An allosteric model for control of pore opening by substrate binding in the EutL microcompartment shell protein. Protein Sci 24:956-975.

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