MU biochemistry assistant professor Peter Cornish named Pew Scholar

Friday, June 15, 2012 | 7:45 p.m. CDT; updated 4:50 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 16, 2012
MU assistant professor Peter Cornish is one of the 22 people in the nation to be named a 2012 Pew Scholar in biomedical sciences.

COLUMBIA — Peter Cornish has always been interested in discovery and figuring out how things function.

These interests have led him to national recognition.

Cornish, a biochemistry assistant professor at MU, is one of the 22 individuals in the nation to be named a 2012 Pew Scholar in the biomedical sciences. He is the first MU faculty member to receive the honor while working at the university.

“It is a big deal for me and a big deal for the university,” Cornish said. “It not only provides money for research but also notoriety.”

Pew Scholars are considered to be among the most innovative young researchers. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts website, the community includes Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows and Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award recipients.

Since 1985, the program has invited top research institutions to nominate one candidate each year. It received 134 eligible nominations from a pool of 179 institutions this year.

Winners receive $240,000 over four years to help them pursue their research without major restrictions. The program looks to back scientists early in their careers so they can take calculated risks to help advance the human health field.

Even though Cornish only started at MU in the spring of 2010, his talent, past work and future potential made him a great fit to be MU’s Pew Scholar nominee, said Gerald Hazelbauer, chairman of the Biochemistry Department.

Cornish is working with technology called Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET), which is relatively new and developing quite rapidly, Hazelbauer said. Single-molecule FRET gives scientists the ability to look at molecules on an individual basis.

By looking at molecules at a nanometer level, which is one-billionth of a meter, scientists can figure out each molecule’s job and understand their basic functions, Cornish said.

Specifically, Cornish is studying ribosomes, which are the molecules responsible for creating protein.

Viruses and other diseases have the ability to use ribosomes to spread, Cornish said. By figuring out how viruses influence the protein synthesis process, scientists hope to become able to stop the disruption and create medical treatments.

Because Cornish has a background in both biology and physics, it gives him the ability to bridge the two areas of expertise, Hazelbauer said. 

“He understands enough about biology to know the interesting questions, and enough about physics to be able to apply the techniques and troubleshoot,” Hazelbauer said.

Cornish used a similar technique while in graduate school at Texas A&M University. There, he earned a doctorate in biochemistry in 2005. He did his postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois before coming to MU in 2010. 

Supervising editor is Hannah Cushman.

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