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Columbia Missourian

MU professor to receive national chemistry award

August 6, 2008 | 6:09 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — An MU radiology professor has been selected to receive the American Chemical Society's highest honor for his contributions to understanding the chemistry of boron, the fifth element on the periodic table.

M. Frederick Hawthorne, who is also the director of MU's International Institute of Nano and Molecular Medicine, will receive the 2009 Priestley Medal at the society's semiannual national meeting in March. The award is named for Joseph Priestley, who is credited with discovering oxygen.

Hawthorne is in good company; past Priestley recipients include Linus Pauling, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on chemical bonds, and Glenn Seaborg, another Nobel laureate who led the team that discovered plutonium. Pauling also won a Nobel Peace Prize.

"It (the Priestley Medal)'s the most important award one can get in the field of chemistry short of a Nobel Prize," Robert Churchill, MU radiology department chair, said.

Recipients are invited to deliver an address at the meeting when they receive the award, and Hawthorne said he's already thinking of what to say.

"I want to use this as a means to explain to the people out there the unique properties at MU," he said.

He cited MU's emphasis on collaboration, which he calls an "unusual and very favorable situation in which to accomplish new and difficult research goals."

"You just don't find it better than this," he said.

Hawthorne's colleagues describe his personality as warmly as they do his accomplishments.

"He's one of the most enthusiastic, upbeat, curious people you'll ever talk to," Churchill said.

Calvin Lewis, an undergraduate student who works in Hawthorne's research group, described him in an e-mail as "an outstanding role model."

"Because of Dr. Hawthorne's kind heart, he gave me the chance of a lifetime," Lewis said.

Most of Hawthorne's work has focused on the basic chemistry and applications of boron, which he said was "a relatively unknown element" when he started his career.

Hawthorne said the element can be used to make all kinds of small structures and devices, including molecular motors, which he called "really kind of cute and possibly useful in many ways."

Another use of boron that interests Hawthorne is a type of cancer treatment known as boron neutron capture therapy.

In this treatment, boron atoms are brought into cancer cells but not into healthy cells. The boron atoms split apart and kill the cancer cells when exposed to neutrons - subatomic particles found in the nucleus of an atom.

Hawthorne didn't have access to a suitable source of neutrons though until after he came to MU, and such a source was built at its research reactor.

Hawthorne said he has high hopes for the treatment, which so far has mainly been studied for use with brain tumors, to be used in other parts of the body.

"One of my main purposes in being here is to open up boron neutron capture therapy to apply it to all sorts of tumors," he said.

Eventually, Hawthorne said, he hopes to commercialize the technology.

"I would like to see this happen in Columbia and the state of Missouri," he said.

Hawthorne arrived at MU in 2006 after spending 44 years in the University of California System, where he taught at the Riverside and Los Angeles campuses.

Before he lived in California, he went to school in Kansas and Missouri. He went to high school in Rolla and studied chemical engineering for three years at Missouri University of Science and Technology, which was then known as the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy.

"This is also like coming home, in a way," Hawthorne said.

Hawthorne said he has received more than 100 e-mails congratulating him since the award was announced.

"It was and still is very exciting," he said.