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Former Postdoctoral Fellow Leah Witus Nets a Cottrell Scholar Award

Former Stoddart group postdoctoral fellow (2012–2015) Leah Witus, who is now an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Macalester College, was selected as a recipient of the 2021 Cottrell Scholar Award. The Cottrell Scholar Awards are a program administered by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which describes the program as one that “champions the very best early career teacher-scholars in chemistry, physics, and astronomy by providing significant discretionary awards for research. The Cottrell Scholar Award honors and helps to develop outstanding teacher-scholars who are recognized by their scientific communities for the quality and innovation of their research programs and their academic leadership skills.”

Leah is being recognized for her research program on catalytic peptides and for her educational proposal to develop a new scientific communication course at Macalester College. Peptide catalysts have many practical applications in addition to providing important model systems for understanding enzymatic catalysis. β-hairpin peptides can be used to spatially orient reactive groups; however, there remains a need to more fully explore their sequence-catalytic activity relationship to design β-hairpin catalysts for important reactions and applications. The Witus lab engages in research to address this gap by investigating the effects of turn residues, cross-strand interactions, and reactive dyad positioning on β-hairpin ester hydrolysis catalysts. These studies will increase fundamental knowledge about catalytic peptide design and will help us and others apply the design principles learned from this work to interesting and important substrates. Leah’s educational plan addresses the pressing need to train scientists as ethical and effective communicators within the profession, and as leaders for the broader public, through the development of a Macalester College course entitled ‘Scientific Communication for Chemists.’ This course will give students the opportunity to gain training in professional and public scientific communication by dedicating course time to the particular conventions, challenges, and opportunities of communicating as a scientist.

During Leah’s time in the Stoddart group she worked on palindromic [3]-rotaxanes driven by radical pairing interactions in water and the anticancer activity of 2,9–diazaperopyrenium dications, as well as other projects. A personal highlight of her time in the group was meeting her husband, Stoddart group PhD Dennis Cao, who is also a recipient of the Cottrell Scholar Award!

Pictured below – 2021 Cottrell Scholar Award Winner Leah Witus: