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Grants Awarded Through the Division of Sponsored Research

This article was originally published in the April - May 2004 issue of CLASnotes

Hagen Receives NSF CAREER Award

Stephen HagenThe National Science Foundation has awarded Assistant Professor of Physics Stephen Hagen a prestigious CAREER grant through its Faculty Early Career Development Program. Hagen will receive $623,000 during the next five years to aid his work on the dynamics of protein folding.

After receiving a BA in physics from Wesleyan University in 1984 and a PhD in physics from Princeton University in 1989, Hagen went on to work as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Maryland from 1989-1992, where he conducted experimental research on superconductors. He then made a bold career move in 1992, changing his area of research from condensed matter physics to biological physics by becoming a staff fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) studying the dynamics of protein folding. Hagen continued to research at the NIH, in addition to serving one year as a Congressional Science Fellow on Capitol Hill for the American Institute of Physics, before coming to UF in 1999 as the physics department's first biological physicist.

"Steve Hagen is a creative and productive experimental physicist who has made significant contributions to two subfields in physics—superconductivity and molecular biophysics," says department chair Alan Dorsey. "He is the first of what I hope will be several hires in the area of biological physics, and he will play an important role in developing this interdisciplinary research area in our department."

Hagen will use the CAREER award to further his study of protein molecules and how they assemble themselves, or "fold," to carry out their biochemical function. "We know that there are a large number of proteins in biology—the human genome contains something like 30,000 different proteins," Hagen says. "So the number of proteins we know about is very large, but the number of proteins whose actual folded structure we know is relatively very small. If we knew more about how proteins fold, it would improve our understanding of their structure and biological function, which are both extremely important in biology."

The misfolding of proteins is believed to play a role in a number of diseases, including Alzheimer's, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Mad Cow, Parkinson's and cystic fibrosis. Knowing more about how proteins fold could lead to cures for these diseases. "There are actually diseases of protein folding," Hagen says. "Instead of going into the correctly folded state, a protein can go into the wrong state, which can lead to disease. In Mad Cow disease and its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, for example, there is a protein that goes bad. Instead of folding correctly, it adopts an incorrect structure and these misfolded molecules accumulate or aggregate, causing injury."

Hagen's work is interdisciplinary, and he collaborates with researchers in the Department of Chemistry, the College of Medicine and the McKnight Brain Institute. Arthur Edison, one of Hagen's research colleagues and an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, says, "Steve is top notch. I think he is one of the finest biophysical researchers at UF, and we are really lucky to have him. The thing that makes him special is that he is a true physicist, but he also knows biology and chemistry quite well and that is unusual. A lot of physicists try to work on biological problems, but they don't have a feel for biology so it limits what they can do. Steve very comfortably straddles biology and chemistry, and he is one of the real stars in the protein folding field right now."

In addition to his research, Hagen teaches two undergraduate courses—General Physics and Introduction to Biophysics. He is also an organizer of the Molecular Biophysics Journal Club, a group of UF students and faculty from physics, chemistry and medicine that meets to discuss papers on experimental and computational methods in molecular biophysics. Hagen was chosen for the CAREER award based on his creative way of integrating research and teaching. The award is the third for the physics department in the past two years, with Yoonseok Lee and Stephen Hill each receiving one in 2003

—Buffy Lockette

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Jane Gibson

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