Assured Ascent

Christine Hrycyna leads the Department of Chemistry upward and outward

BY AMY RALEY

“We’re on an upward trajectory,” says Christine Hrycyna, professor of chemistry and 150th Anniversary Professor, about the increasingly talented students and faculty who are attracted to the Department of Chemistry, where she took the helm in 2017.

A member of the Purdue faculty since 2000, Hrycyna (pronounced her-SIN-ah) was appointed in 2017 to serve as head of the department, which is also enjoying growth in its national and international reputation. Crediting much of this success to her predecessors, Hrycyna says the department has been fortunate in getting its top faculty candidates. “That breeds confidence. In fact, we attracted two outstanding young organic chemists this year due in large part to our outstanding environment and reputation,” she says.

With two Nobel Prize-winning faculty in its history, two academic programs ranked in the top five by U.S. News & World Report, and countless scientific contributions and recognitions, the Department of Chemistry has a research and teaching environment that is “second to none,” Hrycyna says.

And its new leader is no stranger to accolades. In early January, Hrycyna’s teaching excellence took center stage as she became one of 10 Purdue faculty members to be named a 150th Anniversary Professor. The honor follows Hrycyna’s three-time Arthur E. Kelley Undergraduate Award for Excellence in Teaching, her Charles B. Murphy Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching, her Teaching for Tomorrow award, and her membership in Purdue’s Teaching Academy.

“I’m interested in how we can interface more with research in agriculture, engineering, and the new life science institutes, for example. I want us to look outward and be collaborative.”

Christine Hrycyna, professor of chemistry, head of the Department of Chemistry, and Purdue 150th Anniversary Professor


Novel treatments for diseases

Hrycyna, a biochemist, has also garnered acclaim for her research, which explores the molecular mechanisms of cancer, aging and multidrug resistance. Specifically, she and her research team look at the mechanisms of membrane proteins that are altered in human diseases or that can be exploited to better treat diseases. “A complete understanding of these proteins could lead to the development of new modulating agents that could greatly facilitate the treatment of a large number of diseases, including cancer,” Hrycyna says.

Prior to coming to Purdue, Hrycyna received her PhD from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA and subsequently was a postdoctoral fellow and research fellow at the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, where she was awarded a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research. Most recently, her NIH-funded research has earned her a University Faculty Scholar distinction.

Finding new treatments for cancer and other diseases is a strength in the Department of Chemistry, Hrycyna says, noting enormous research breakthroughs from her faculty colleagues. “We have cutting-edge research from faculty members such as Arun Ghosh, who is making molecules to treat diseases and has brought an HIV drug to market,” she says. “Phil Low also has had exceptional success with his cancer-related work developing targeted agents for the imaging and therapy cancers. And Graham Cooks is developing new technologies to differentiate normal and cancerous brain tissue during surgeries.”


Upward, outward

Hrycyna’s vision for the department includes advancing projects that address worldwide challenges in human health, disease and diagnostics, energy, and global sustainability. She will also work to increase interdisciplinary research collaborations. “I’m interested in how we can interface more with research in agriculture, engineering and the new life science institutes, for example,” she says. “I want us to look outward and be collaborative.”

Hrycyna was selected to head the department for her leadership experience and for being both well-connected and highly respected across campus, says Robert Geahlen, distinguished professor emeritus of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology in the College of Pharmacy. “Hrycyna is the right person to bring disparate groups together. Chris thinks deeply about department issues, emphasizes communication, prioritizes diversity and advocates effectively for administrative goals,” says Geahlen, who led the search committee for the chemistry department head position.


For the students

Teaching will always be a priority, says Hrycyna, who strives to give students the attention they’d receive in a small-college environment, like the attention she received as an undergraduate at Middlebury College — and the technology and facilities that will prepare them for the future. “When the new STEM building opens, we will also have new curricula — making our students even more marketable,” she says. A teacher through-and-through, Hrycyna is happiest in the classroom, even when her bad jokes are met with loud groans. Or perhaps especially then, she admits.