Ohio State Grabbing Headlines While Seeking Prestige

By CARRIE SPENCER, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Bing Hao couldn't believe the results flashing across the screen.

"I had to check, check, check again, to make sure it's real," she said.

An X-ray study of a crystallized chemical had just confirmed her research team had discovered a 22nd amino acid, one of the fundamental building blocks of all proteins. For more than a century -- until the 21st was discovered in 1986 -- science had held there were only 20.

Hao, who will complete her work for a doctoral degree this summer, and fellow doctoral student Gayathri Srinivasan became the team's lead writers on two studies that will go into biology and biochemistry textbooks of the future.

The team made national headlines when the two papers were published in late May in Science magazine.

"Ohio State for a long time has worked very hard at correcting the impression that this is not a research institution," said Joseph Krzycki, associate professor of microbiology, who led the study along with biochemistry professor Michael Chan. "Public perception of that around the nation perhaps hasn't been strong."

The school is trying to improve middling results in national research rankings and shake off its somewhat invisible reputation among the powerhouse universities and the public.

"It has been significantly under-recognized," said C. Bradley Moore, vice president of research. "It has also not seized some good opportunities."

The university has some acknowledged stars.

Last year, geologist climate scientist Lonnie Thompson was chosen one of "America's best in science and medicine" by Time magazine and CNN for his work studying ice from the Earth's poles and mountains for evidence of global warming. In September, he will receive the international Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, which comes with a $150,000 award.

Kenneth Wilson, who joined the physics department in 1988, had won the Nobel Prize for physics six years earlier.

The amino acid study is just one of several university projects and researchers gaining national attention. A few others:

  • Derek Hansford, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, this spring was named one of the top 100 innovators younger than 35 by Technology Review magazine at MIT. Hansford adapted a lithography process to design plastic devices the size of red blood cells that can protect drugs from the body's immune system while delivering them to a tumor or other diseased tissue.
  • Psychology professor Sally Boysen was featured in an hour-long television documentary in April on the Discovery Channel about her work teaching chimpanzees to use human language.
  • Physics and chemistry professor Arthur Epstein, director of the Center for Materials Research, developed the first plastic magnet whose magnetism is changed by shining different colors of light on it.

Not all of the attention has been positive.

Animal rights groups have protested veterinary professor Michael Podell's $1.7 million federally funded study that involves infecting up to 120 cats with the feline immunodeficiency virus and giving them methamphetamines.

Podell, a 10-year employee, plans to leave the university this summer. The reason was not disclosed and the future of the five-year study, in its third year, was not immediately clear.

In the first published results from the study, released earlier this month, Podell said the drug speeds the spread of the virus. Podell has said the long-term goals are to be able to tell when and how the HIV virus infects the brain as part of finding treatments to slow the dementia that comes as AIDS develops.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection in March found no violations of animal-care rules.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)