Sean M. Decatur

Citation for 2001 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

The intricate world of atoms and molecules that drives the forces giving "life" to all creatures is invisible and inaccessible to most of us, yet Sean Decatur makes that world real to his students, and he opens windows into its underlying processes for his professional colleagues.

Sean's research stimulates colleagues to take their own research in new directions, and inspires the confidence of peer evaluators. He is a valued and respected member of a broadly based scientific community of chemists, biochemists, and molecular biologists. In the brief period since he came to Mount Holyoke, he has had numerous research publications in highly selective journals and received grants totaling nearly a million dollars. Sean hit the ground running in his doctoral research, which still sets the standards for graduate students in the laboratory of his mentor, and continues to stimulate new work. In the meantime, he has established his own research program in which he studies the relationship between structure and function in proteins, the molecular workhorses of living cells. Sean is a leader in the field of biophysical chemistry that investigates why a protein chain folds in a given way and thus assumes a particular function.

Sean is an outstanding scientist because he brings an exceptional array of talents to his research. He asks important questions. Understanding how proteins fold will provide a link between genes and cellular function which will bring us closer to explaining what happens when things go wrong and suggest avenues for repairing faulty processes. The incredible complexity of biological molecules such as proteins can be a major barrier to attacking the important questions, but Sean's creative application of existing technology has lowered the barrier. To do this, he designs and constructs small proteins with particular characteristics. With these simpler systems he uses sophisticated spectroscopic techniques to follow the dynamics of folding and the lessons learned are applied to larger biological molecules. His colleagues characterize the results as "breakthrough," "key," "substantial," and "..having a significant impact on future studies..."

Sean's imagination and enthusiasm also become the essence of his teaching. His "nose for the good problem" extends to the identification, for his research students, of interesting but "doable" research projects which are presented at professional meetings and published in major journals. In the classroom, from introductory chemistry to physical chemistry, he shares his love of chemistry and students sense his joy when they succeed in understanding a difficult concept. As one put it, "..the most valuable thing I will take from this course is the ability to be excited by chemistry.."

But Sean engages students in more than chemistry, he engages them in a community: the local community, as they measure lead in paint samples or mercury levels at the local golf course, and a world community. By his personal example, and through explicit material in his courses, Sean demonstrates that science and scientists are not apart from ethical issues that face society. The introduction of a course on science, culture, and ethics, the organization of a conference on race and science, active involvement in local and regional mentoring programs, and much more, are clear evidence that he is a leader in this arena.

Sean epitomizes the research scholar, who makes significant contributions to his profession, the teacher, whose love of subject translates into excitement and energy in the classroom, and the community member who cares deeply about his community and acts with conviction to further its integrity.