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Stanford Report, June 5, 2002

Harden McConnell named winner of 2002 Welch Award in Chemistry


Stanford chemist Harden McConnell has been named the 2002 winner of the Welch Award for lifetime achievement in basic chemical research. The formal announcement was made May 30 at a Faculty Club luncheon sponsored by the Welch Foundation of Houston.

McConnell -- the Robert Eckles Swain Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus -- is the 32nd recipient of the award, which includes a gold medallion and a $300,000 prize to be presented in Houston in October. McConnell's selection brings Stanford's number of Welch Award recipients to four -- more than any other institution. The other three Stanford winners -- Henry Taube, Richard Zare and Roger Kornberg -- also attended the honorary luncheon, along with dozens of McConnell's friends, family and colleagues.

In announcing the award, Welch Foundation officials noted that McConnell has made significant discoveries about the fundamental molecular properties of cell membranes that provide new insights into how the body regulates cholesterol and activates its immune system.

"Dr. McConnell has made a series of pioneering discoveries concerning the physical state of liquid membranes, providing principles used every day by many scientists," said Norman Hackerman, chair of the Welch Foundation's scientific advisory board.

"It's clear that he disregards easy problems," Hackerman told the luncheon guests. "He carries out research on things that irritate him -- and obviously does a good job!"

In acknowledging the award, McConnell noted that only "20 percent of my work was done by me alone."

The other 80 percent involved collaborations with students and postdocs, so the award is also a tribute to them, he said, and to the two chemistry departments where he spent most of his academic career -- Caltech (1956 to 1964) and Stanford (1964 to 2000).

Early career

A native of Virginia, McConnell received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from George Washington University and his doctorate from Caltech. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, McConnell has received numerous professional awards, including the 1990 National Medal of Science.

"The achievements of Dr. McConnell exemplify the guiding principle of the Welch Foundation and the spirit of the Welch Award: basic research in chemistry that contributes to the betterment of humankind," observed Richard J. V. Johnson, foundation chair and chief executive officer.

He pointed out that McConnell's first scientific breakthrough came when he applied quantum mechanics to chemical problems and developed theoretical methods for relating nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) data to the structure of molecules. McConnell modified the equations governing NMR to include the effects of chemical reactions and used the results to measure chemical kinetics -- that is, the speed at which reactions take place. He also pioneered research on free radicals -- an extremely reactive type of chemical that occurs in biological settings. This research ultimately led to the development of the McConnell Relation, which describes the distribution of electron spin in free radicals.

Stanford research

When McConnell moved to Stanford in 1964, he began to use the methods of physical chemistry to study biological problems, introducing a method called spin labels, in which electron and NMR spectra are used to study the structure and kinetics of proteins and lipids. His work showed how to measure the movement of molecules through and within membranes in the laboratory -- a technique that was later shown by many researchers to apply to living cell membranes. His research also demonstrated how a protein present in the body combines with a foreign peptide on the cell membrane to enable the body to recognize a pathogenic invader.

"Some of these discoveries are critical to understanding many properties of membranes," McConnell said, "and a large portion of biology takes place in and on membranes, so understanding them is crucial."

McConnell's recent work at Stanford has focused on the behavior of cholesterol in membranes. Discoveries by his team concerning the properties of monomolecular films on the surface of water have shed light on cholesterol-phospholipid interactions that previously had puzzled scientists in several different fields of research.

"Cholesterol forms special 'condensed' complexes," McConnell explained. "By describing them mathematically, one can predict many of the properties that have been observed regarding cholesterol and phospholipid mixtures, which are major components of animal cell membranes."

He predicted that the next few years will bring a general understanding of the relation between fatty acids and cholesterol in cells, eventually leading to better control of cholesterol levels.

The Welch Foundation was established in 1954 with a bequest by the late oil entrepreneur Robert A. Welch, described by the foundation as "a self-made man with a strong sense of responsibility to humankind, an enthusiastic respect for chemistry and a deep love for the state of Texas."

In the past half century, the foundation has provided more than $465 million in support of science -- including funding for research grants, conferences, university endowed chairs and lectureships.

Harden McConnell was named the 2002 winner of the Welch Award May 30. Photo: Steve Castillo