This year's award recognizes three outstanding early-career investigators conducting infectious diseases research. Learn more about the 2024 winners, Pamela Chang, Shobhna Kapoor, and Jun Wang.

Digital illustration of a stylized chain of bacteria on a blue gradient background.

The 2024 ACS Infectious Diseases Young Investigator Award recognizes three outstanding early-career investigators conducting infectious diseases research. The award honors the recipients’ contributions to the field of infectious diseases research at an early stage in their careers.

The Editors of ACS Infectious Diseases and the ACS Division of Biological Chemistry (BIOL) are pleased to announce the winners of the 2024 ACS Infectious Diseases Young Investigator Joint Lectureship Awards:

  • Prof. Pamela Chang, Cornell University
  • Prof. Shobhna Kapoor, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay
  • Prof. Jun Wang, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

The awards will be presented at ACS Fall 2024 taking place August 18-22 in Denver, United States, where the winners are invited to speak as part of the Celebrating 10 Years of ACS Infectious Diseases and the Young Investigator Award Winners BIOL session.

Prof. Pamela Chang

Headshot of Prof. Pamela Chang
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Pamela Chang is an Associate Professor at Cornell University in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Read the full interview with Prof. Chang below.

What inspired you to pursue your area of research?

As a chemical biologist, I became interested in understanding the chemical crosstalk that mediates host-microbe interactions in the context of human health and disease. I have since embarked on developing multidisciplinary approaches to identify bacterial small-molecule metabolites that act as signaling agents to mediate this communication in inflammatory and infectious diseases.

We have recently discovered a novel role for a neurotransmitter receptor in sensing microbial metabolites in the gut. Interestingly, its activation helps protect the host against bacterial infection in the intestines. I am also interested in developing chemical approaches to characterize the biosynthetic enzymes that produce these important metabolites. To this end, we have employed activity-based probes to profile enzymatic activities on the systems biochemical level.

Describe a key turning point in your research.

My research has recently launched into exciting areas surrounding key discoveries and developments made by my lab in the last few years. The first key point was the discovery of new roles for specific bacterial metabolites in mediating colonization resistance against bacterial pathogens and protecting the host against gut inflammation during colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. These findings have catalyzed the development of new projects within the lab centered on this theme.

The second key point was the development of chemoproteomic approaches to profile gut microbial metabolism. We have since applied these approaches to further understand biochemical activity of important biosynthetic enzymes and their roles in disease.

What advice would you give someone entering this field of research?

My advice would be to train broadly to gain as much knowledge in this area as possible. I believe this field of research is rich in scientific questions that need to be addressed with multi- and interdisciplinary approaches, so training in diverse areas will help you approach these problems with a new perspective. This goal can be achieved by both reading the literature and learning as many techniques as you can, so you can tackle these questions from creative and unique angles.

If you are seeking an independent academic position, I encourage you to select the next big problem in this fast-paced field, which will give you an advantage during your entry as a new principal investigator.

Is there anyone who has been a great role model, mentor, or inspiration to you?

My Ph.D. advisor, Carolyn Bertozzi, has always been a great role model and mentor to me. Carolyn is a truly unique scientist and individual who inspires everyone who knows her. I have always been in awe of her scientific prowess and chemical creativity, her ability to manage many tasks well simultaneously, and her ability to communicate incredibly effectively both in oral and written formats. As a graduate student, she was continually a source of wisdom and inspiration especially when the science got tough, and beyond those years, she has been very helpful in giving me advice during the different stages of my career. As a PI running my own research group, I strive to mentor my lab members as Carolyn did to help support my trainees in every way possible.

Prof. Shobhna Kapoor

Headshot of Prof. Shobhna Kapoor
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Shobhna Kapoor is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Read the full interview with Prof. Kapoor below.

What inspired you to pursue your area of research?

Proteins have held the center stage in infectious diseases (and others) for many decades. This hints towards our incomplete understanding of the full scope of pathogenic components and their action on host cell alterations during pathogenesis. My exposure to the fascinating world of lipids and membranes during my Ph.D. intrigued my interest in exploring the biologically functional roles of lipids beyond their traditional structural functions. This was when my thesis revealed subtle effects of membrane lipids on protein conformation fine tuning the protein activity. This really piqued my attention, on how such simple chemical molecules can have far reaching effects on complex biomolecules like proteins.

Later in my career, my post-doctoral training in cell chemical biology gave me the unique edge of exploring infection biology from lipid-centric angle and brought me to IIT Bombay, where we as a vibrant interdisciplinary research group comprising of physical and organic chemists, cell biologist, and microbiologist study the multiple roles played by lipids in infectious diseases at the molecular level.

Describe a key turning point in your research.

While the majority of our research efforts are focused on inventorying the host-pathogen cross talk at the lipid level, we stumbled upon a massive gap in the literature on how less we know about mycobacterial lipids themselves in context of the bacterial membranes. This was a big turning point in shaping our next research questions and brought us straight to the problem of limited drug permeability of mycobacterial membranes, which is a challenging issue to resolve in a quest to develop new antibacterial drugs. Investigating the membrane properties of mycobacterial lipids under varied conditions will provide a deepened understanding of these compositionally distinct membrane platforms along with their functional roles in drug resistance, bacterial survival, and pathogenesis.

What advice would you give someone entering this field of research?

The recent SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has created a massive push to develop effective anti-infective therapies against this and future viral and bacterial pandemics. To this view, limited success of protein-directed anti-infectives coupled with selection for resistance highlights the urgent need for alternative strategies. In this regard, an exciting paradigm for broad-spectrum intervention relies on targeting a universal cellular component—lipid. To date, lipids and membranes have been largely ignored as a therapeutic target and are an untapped platform for drug development. But pathogens including Mycobacterium tuberculosis, that causes tuberculosis, and SARs-COV-2 that causes COVID-19, have evolved to use their lipids to modify processes in the host cell during infection as well to mitigate action of drugs.

These observations bring lipid membrane to the forefront for developing novel anti-infective strategies that rely on affecting membrane structure and function. This has rarely been investigated and awaits young smart minds with diverse background to address this in an interdisciplinary fashion.

Is there anyone who has been a great role model, mentor, or inspiration to you?

Both my parents, Prof. Satwanti Kapoor and Prof. Anup Kumar Kapoor, are the fuel behind my unfaltering passion towards science. My first acquaintance with science came early in life wherein the background of my home has been a driving force for sound analytical ability coupled with high degree of motivation and enthusiasm for higher studies. They both are STEM learners and what they assured me is that if I follow the path of science, I can have a massive impact through the research I will perform. Using Science, Technology, and Engineering, I have the power to solve problems that could impact the lives of millions of people and become the hope for a better planet. They ushered me to train myself to become hardworking, dedicated, perseverant and most importantly persistent.

The road ahead is not easy they say and that is what makes the life so exciting, ….to DREAM, …to STRIVE and…to ACHIEVE. I am also blessed to have great friends in science, which keeps us motivated, always pushing forward with curiously hungry minds!

Prof. Jun Wang

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Jun Wang Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry in the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Read the full interview with Prof. Wang below.

What inspired you to pursue your area of research?

My group is working on developing antivirals targeting emerging and re-emerging viruses. My interest in antivirals stems from my Ph.D. thesis project, which focuses on the structure-based design of inhibitors targeting influenza A virus M2 proton channel (AM2). AM2 is only 97-residue long and forms a homotetrameric proton selective channel. AM2 is the drug target of amantadine, which is no longer in clinical use due to drug resistance, especially the S31N mutant. Throughout this project, I was impressed by the versatile roles of viral proteins and the multiple pathways that viruses evolve to become drug-resistant. One of the goals was to design the first-in-class AM2-S31N inhibitors. No S31N inhibitor was reported at that time, although the amantadine-resistant S31N mutant was known for decades.

I continued to work on this project when I became independent and developed an S31N inhibitor with in vivo antiviral efficacy in a mouse infection model. Throughout this process, I gained experience in assay development, structural biology, virology, animal models, and pharmacokinetic optimization, which paved the way for our current work on enteroviruses and coronaviruses.

Describe a key turning point in your research.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a timely reminder for antiviral researchers like us about what we can do to solve a real-world problem. We kick-started our COVID projects in early 2020, aiming to develop SARS-CoV-2 antivirals. Given our experiences in viral cysteine proteases such as enterovirus 2A and 3C proteases, we chose the SARS-CoV-2 main protease (Mpro) and papain-like protease (PLpro) as antiviral drug targets. Our contributions to the field include the discovery of boceprevir as a Mpro inhibitor, which paved the way for the design of nirmatrelvir; validation and invalidation of literature-reported Mpro and PLpro inhibitors using cell-based FlipGFP protease assays; discovery of di- and tri-chloroacetamides as novel cysteine reactive warheads for Mpro; identification of nirmatrelvir drug-resistant Mpro mutants; and more recently the design of a PLpro inhibitor with in vivo antiviral efficacy in a SARS-CoV-2 infection mouse model.

In addition, I served as a scientific collaborator of Pfizer for its development of the first generation of Mpro inhibitor PF-07304814. The World Health Organization invited me to give a talk on SARS-CoV-2 Mpro drug resistance at the Pathogen X symposium in Geneva in 2022. These achievements wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of my structural biology and virology collaborators, including Dr. Yu Chen from the University of South Florida, Dr. Xufang Deng from Oklahoma State University, and my colleague Dr. Eddy Arnold from Rutgers University.

What advice would you give someone entering this field of research?

The most efficient way of learning is to start working on it. We always follow where our projects lead us to. For example, if a designed inhibitor works in the biochemical assay, we will test it in the antiviral assay. If it shows potent activity, we will profile the in vitro and in vivo pharmacokinetic properties and advance it to the animal model study. We continuously challenge ourselves to push the project to the next level. We may not be experts in all aspects, and not all the projects will be successful. However, the valuable assets are the experiences and knowledge accumulated along the way, which will accelerate the progress of future projects. Drug discovery is multidisciplinary and requires a team of scientists with complementary expertise. We should be willing to share the credit and acknowledge the contributions from the collaborators. There is no universal drug design strategy that works for every drug target, and we need to be creative and develop new tools to make the undruggable targets druggable.

Is there anyone who has been a great role model, mentor, or inspiration to you?

My Ph.D. advisor, William F. DeGrado, is my role model as a scientist. I was fortunate to work with him for over seven years, first as a graduate student and then as a postdoc. Curiosity and resilience are the two most valuable traits I inherited. Bill is an inspiring leader and always encourages his mentees to tackle challenging projects. Some of the projects were formulated during group meeting discussions or elevator talks. He provides enough freedom for everyone to demonstrate their creativity. Even when progress is slow, he is patient and suggests alternative approaches. His questions are thought-provoking, which prompt us to step outside our comfort zone. He reminds me how I should treat my graduate students and postdocs.

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