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1997-1998 University Research Professors

by Alicia P. Gregory

Three faculty members were named University Research Professors for 1997-98 by the UK Board of Trustees. They are Dennis Clouthier, chemistry, Mark Summers, history, and Mark Mattson, anatomy and neurobiology.

The research professorships were established in 1977 to recognize outstanding research achievement and to enhance and encourage further scholarly research productivity. Recipients use the $30,000 award to cover their research-related expenses and their teaching duties so they may devote themselves to full-time research activities for a year.

Dennis Clouthier, a native of The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and graduate of the University of Saskatchewan, came to UK in 1984. During his Research Professorship, Clouthier will focus on two new reactive intermediates that were discovered in his lab. "Reactive intermediates are short-lived fragments of molecules formed during chemical reactions," Clouthier says. He uses high-powered lasers to analyze these transient molecules.

Studies of reactive intermediates may hold the key to improving the chemical purity of computer chips. "The chemical processes used in making computer chips are poorly understood," he says. "Many of the computer chips that are grown cannot be used because they have chemical contamination, so there's a huge research effort going on all over the world to try to figure out how the chemical processes work at the very elementary level so we can improve efficiency."

The September 8, 1997, issue of Chemical & Engineering News featured Clouthier's current research on the rare property called quantum beating exhibited by his two new molecules. Molecules with this characteristic get rid of the energy they absorb from a flash of laser light in an oscillating or beating pattern.

Mark Summers holds degrees from Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, and joined the UK history faculty in 1984. Summers is the author of four books, all published by major university presses. His most recent book, The Press Gang, analyzes the connection between journalism and politics in the Gilded Age, the last three decades of the 19th century, which were characterized by a greatly expanding economy.

During his year as a Research Professor, Summers will continue to focus on the Gilded Age in his next book, The Owner's Manual. Summers says the name of the book reflects the true owners of America's political system -- the politicians. "By making decisions, or in fact by doing nothing, politicians have completely changed the condition of people's lives," Summers says. "This book will study how politics actually worked in the period of 1870 to 1900 America."

The Owner's Manual will reveal many of the dirty campaign tactics Summers found in researching UK's 19th-century newspaper collection. "It's unbelievable what tactics you find. One candidate very successfully cut down his opponent's votes by suggesting that his opponent was dead five or six days before the election," he says.

Mark Mattson, a native of Rochester, Minnesota, came to UK in 1989. He holds degrees from Iowa State University, North Texas State University, and the University of Iowa. Mattson's research on Alzheimer's disease is currently focused on a mutated gene that causes an inherited form of the disease that strikes early, sometimes when people are in their late 30s.

This inherited gene disrupts the nerve cell's ability to regulate calcium and increases production of free radicals, unstable molecules that damage cell proteins. Mattson's study, featured in the June 1, 1997, issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, has shown that nerve cell death caused by these genes could be delayed by treating cells with drugs that block calcium and exposing them to vitamin E, an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals.

"The value of studying these inherited forms of Alzheimer's disease is that the cause is known, whereas in 85 to 95 percent of all Alzheimer's cases, the cause is not known and cannot be explained by a genetic mutation," Mattson says. "But there seems to be a final common denominator in both inherited and non-genetic forms of Alzheimer's disease that excessive calcium and free radicals cause nerve cell death."