Posted: May 11, 2006
When Lila Gierasch '70 graduated from Mount Holyoke as a chemistry major, summa cum laude and with great distinction, little did she know that she would eventually share the honor of three other Mount Holyoke women in winning the prestigious Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal. The prize, established in 1936 to recognize distinguished service to chemistry by women chemists, is sponsored by the Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal Endowment and presented by the American Chemical Society. Mount Holyoke chemistry professor Emma Perry Carr, who attended MHC as an undergraduate, won the first Garvan-Olin medal ever awarded, in 1937. Mount Holyoke chemistry professors Mary Lura Sherrill and Lucy W. Pickett '25 won the medal in 1947 and 1957, respectively. These three women are the only professors from a liberal arts college ever to win the award.
In naming Gierasch the 2006 medal recipient, the ACS cited her for "her vision of the central role of chemistry in understanding biological phenomena and her persuasive leadership in transforming both the local and national institutions in which she works."
Gierasch earned her Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard University in 1975. She held faculty positions at Amherst College and the University of Delaware in chemistry, and at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in pharmacology. In 1994 she joined the faculty of University of Massachusetts at Amherst as head and professor of the chemistry department. After five years in that post, she became head of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology.
In addition to her substantial administrative responsibilities, Gierasch maintains an active research career, focusing on protein folding, which has been linked to major diseases, including Alzheimer's and cystic fibrosis. She has published more than 190 papers, and received many fellowships and awards, including the Sloan and Guggenheim Fellowships. Her research is currently being funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.