Pioneering chemist Stephen Benkovic elected Foreign Member of Royal Society

May 07, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK — Stephen Benkovic, Evan Pugh Professor and Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Chemistry at Penn State, has been elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, the national academy of science in the United Kingdom. The society, founded in 1660, aims to recognize, promote and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

The society annually elects up to 52 fellows from citizens of the United Kingdom and commonwealth countries and up to 10 Foreign Members. The Statutes of the Royal Society require selection of Foreign Members from among persons of the greatest eminence for their scientific discoveries and attainments.

“The global pandemic has demonstrated the continuing importance of scientific thinking and collaboration across borders” said Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society. “Each Fellow and Foreign Member bring their area of scientific expertise to the Royal Society and when combined, this expertise supports the use of science for the benefit of humanity.”

Benkovic was elected for his pioneering work in bioorganic chemistry, which has impacted our understanding of how proteins function as catalysts — substances that speed up chemical reactions. He also discovered an enzyme complex called the purinosome, which is involved in the cell’s biosynthesis of the purines that, among other things, make up two of the nucleotides in the ACTG genetic alphabet.

“During his time at Penn State, Dr. Benkovic has made extraordinary research contributions to our understanding of enzymes and biological processes,” said Tracy Langkilde, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “He has also prepared several generations of scientists for prominent and impactful careers through his teaching and mentorship. We are thrilled that his contributions have been recognized in this way."

Benkovic uses state-of-the-art chemical-biological techniques that include the development and application of innovative kinetic methods, the invention of novel biological protocols for investigating the chemical sequence and structural basis of enzyme activity, and the discovery of enzyme inhibitors with therapeutic potential. With these techniques, he has studied many different enzyme systems that are important in human biology, including research that has been of fundamental importance in the design of cancer drugs and antibiotics.

Benkovic currently serves on the scientific advisory boards of Boragen LLC, Nucorion Pharmaceuticals, Boundless Bio Inc., and on the external advisory board at Cleveland State University Center for Gene Regulation in Health and Disease (GRHD). He is a member of the external advisory group for the Geisinger Medical Center and serves on advisory committees for the Penn State Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.

Among his many honors, Benkovic was one of 10 eminent researchers named by then U.S. President Barack Obama to receive the 2009 National Medal of Science, the nation's highest award for lifetime achievement in scientific research. In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences honored him with its Award in Chemical Sciences in recognition of his groundbreaking contributions to understanding catalysis and complex biological machines — specifically the purinosome and DNA polymerases — and for demonstrating the power of chemistry to solve biological problems.

Benkovic's honors also include the Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry from the American Chemical Society, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, the Royal Society Centenary Award, the Merck Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists, the Alfred Bader Award in Bioinorganic or Bioorganic Chemistry from the American Chemical Society, and the Pfizer Enzyme Award.

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Inventors and an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He is also a member of the American Chemical Society, the Federation of American Biologists, Sigma Xi, and the Chemical Society.

Benkovic earned bachelor’s degrees in English literature and in chemistry at Lehigh University in 1960 and a doctoral degree in organic chemistry with minors in physical chemistry and biochemistry at Cornell University in 1963. He was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of California at Santa Barbara from 1964 to 1965 and joined the Penn State faculty in 1965. The University honored Benkovic with the title of Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry in 1977, Holder of the University Chair in Biological Sciences in 1984, and Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Chemistry in 1986.

Last Updated May 18, 2021