Patti installed as inaugural Powell Professor

Research focuses on metabolic pathways involved in cancer, neurological disease and toxicant exposure

Patti and Wrighton shake hands
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton (right) congratulates Gary Patti on his installation as the Michael and Tana Powell Associate Professor of Chemistry. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

Gary Patti has been named the Michael and Tana Powell Associate Professor of Chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis. He was installed Dec. 1 in a ceremony in the Laboratory Sciences Building.

Patti is a pioneer in the field of metabolomics — the study of metabolites present within an organism, tissue or cell — and focuses his research on how the complexities of metabolism influence health and disease. In addition to his appointment in the Department of Chemistry in Arts & Sciences, he also is a member of the medicine faculty at Washington University School of Medicine.

The endowed position was made possible by a generous gift from Washington University Trustee Michael “Mike” Powell, and his wife, Tana. It is one of four such positions the couple plans to establish to benefit chemistry and related fields. The Powells have been actively engaged in supporting the university since their daughter, Landis, a 2016 Arts & Sciences graduate, began her studies in 2012.

“Mike and Tana Powell have given incredible support to the sciences at Washington University, and we are immensely grateful,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “This professorship, along with the others they have committed, are lasting tributes to their generosity and dedication to furthering the important discoveries our scientists are pursuing in chemistry and other fields — work that will have an important and long-lasting impact on human health. They are truly remarkable in their commitment to advancing the university’s research enterprise.”

The Powell family (from left: Michael, Landis and Tana) with Wrighton at the installation ceremony. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

“It is gratifying to see a scientist like Gary Patti recognized for his brilliant and innovative work,” said Barbara A. Schaal, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor. “His passion for metabolomics will almost certainly lead him to breakthroughs that will change lives for countless people struggling with pain and disease. This endowed professorship will allow him to pursue this work more fully, and to make significant strides in this critical field of research.”

Patti’s laboratory studies biochemical reactions underlying fundamental physiological processes to tease out the intricate inner workings of cells. He has built his research around metabolomics technologies that allow small biological molecules (metabolites) to be measured. Using instruments called mass spectrometers to detect metabolites extracted from biological samples, individual metabolites are characterized by their specific masses. The goal is to capture all of the metabolites in a cell, thereby creating metabolic profiles that can be compared between healthy and disease states. Patti uses this approach to determine unique metabolic pathways involved in conditions like cancer that might serve as novel targets for therapies.

Among his many honors, Patti was the recipient in 2014 of a Sloan Research Fellowship from the Sloan Research Foundation, given to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as the next generation of scientific leaders. In 2015, the Pew Charitable Trusts named him a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences, and he also was recognized with a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, which celebrates talented young faculty in the chemical sciences. In 2016, Patti was honored with the Innovation Award from the Academy of Science-St. Louis, and with the Agilent Early Career Professor Award in recognition of his contributions to mass spectrometry-based metabolomics and cancer metabolism. Most recently, Patti received one of eight inaugural awards from the NIH that funds researchers with a demonstrated record of innovative and impactful research for eight years.

About Michael and Tana Powell

The Powells have been highly engaged with the university since their daughter was a student, serving as co-chairs of the Parents Annual Fund and then as co-chairs of the Parents Council. Mike Powell was first elected to the university’s Board of Trustees in 2014 and is chair of the National Research Advisory Council. He holds a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Toronto and completed postdoctoral studies at the University of California before launching his career in pharmaceutical drug development and biotechnology — first at Syntex/Roche and later at Genentech. He is the author of 90 peer-reviewed scientific publications, mainly in the areas of chemistry, drug delivery and immunology.

For the past 20 years, Mike Powell has invested with his venture capital group, Sofinnova Ventures, based in San Francisco. He and his partners have built dozens of biotech companies, many of which have become leaders in oncology, neurology and other fields developing life-saving drugs.

Tana Powell, who earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from York University in Toronto, is an accomplished artist. She developed her career as an art director, graphic designer and illustrator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her paintings range from abstract portraits to large interpretive landscapes, often inspired by her own aerial photographs.

The Powells established the Michael and Tana Powell Professorship in 2016, one of four professorships they have committed for chemistry and related fields. They are establishing the professorships as a challenge to match gifts for other new endowed professorships in these areas. Their commitment also helps support Driving Discovery, an ambitious multiphase project at Washington University that will transform science teaching, research, faculty and facilities in Arts & Sciences. The Powells were awarded the Arts & Sciences Dean’s Medal in 2017.

The couple’s daughter, Landis, graduated from Washington University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences with a focus on geochemistry. She is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

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