For Pennsylvania State University professor Squire Booker, scientific inspiration comes from elucidating the “new chemical language” behind novel biochemical reactions. It’s inspiration he picked up during this time as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Biochemistry working with now-Emeritus Professor Perry Frey in the 1990s.
Booker, a Texas native, attended Austin College and went on to graduate studies at MIT and an NSF/NATO fellowship to study in Paris before writing a letter to Frey to request to join his lab as a postdoc.
“I wanted to get involved in bioinorganic chemistry and a blockbuster discovery by Perry in the late ‘80s sounded like a treasure trove of new and exciting chemistry,” says Squire, who joined the department in the fall of 1995. “Luckily Perry agreed to let me join his lab and I got to get in on this research area pretty much at the ground level. There was lots of great science going on and everyone, including the faculty, were very collegial.”
Perry’s research led to the development of an entirely new radical superfamily, called S-adenosylmethionine, of which there are now almost 114,000 unique sequences representing over 85 distinct reaction types. Booker learned to isolate these enzymes in the lab and characterize their oxygen-sensitive iron-sulfur cofactors with the help of now-Emeritus Professor George Reed. It started a line of research he continued into his independent career.
In 1999, Booker joined Penn State as an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and quickly grew in rank — getting tenure in 2005 — and amassed honors. Most recently he was named the Eberly Family Distinguished Chair in Science in 2017, and the Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Molecular Biology in 2018. Being named an Evan Pugh Professor is the highest honor a faculty member can receive at Penn State.
At Penn State, Booker’s research program is broad but one important area is investigating how nature adds methyl groups to carbon atoms that would initially seem unable to receive them. Another area is researching how nature adds sulfur atoms to some compounds that are typically thought of as unreactive.
His approach is both basic and medicinal. He explains that some of the reactions his group studies provide bacteria a way to guard against and become resistant to many of the most common antibiotics in use. Understanding how these mechanisms work could point to a way to prevent the bacteria from doing this, for example.
Along with teaching undergraduates and graduate students, Booker is also very active in mentoring and performing outreach, especially to students from underrepresented backgrounds in science. He’s served as a mentor to numerous students and on minority affairs committees for professional organizations and groups.
“I’m also pretty good at networking so people across the country routinely email me to try to connect about different opportunities,” he says. “So I have students I look out for as their mentor. For postdocs specifically, some advice I’d give is to use a postdoc as an opportunity to explore a new area you’re unfamiliar with and learn something new.”
This profile was first published in the Department of Biochemistry 2018 newsletter. Read it here.