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Squire Booker PhD ’94 to speak at 2019 Investiture of Doctoral Hoods and Degree Conferral Ceremony

MIT alumnus, now a professor of chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology at Penn State University, is an expert on enzyme reactions.
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Squire Booker
Squire Booker
Photo courtesy of Penn State University.

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart announced today that Squire J. Booker PhD ’94 will be the guest speaker at MIT’s 2019 Investiture of Doctoral Hoods and Degree Conferral Ceremony. Booker is the Evan Pugh Professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology and Eberly Family Distinguished Chair in Science at Penn State University, and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“Professor Booker is an outstanding researcher and educator who embodies the MIT mission of advancing knowledge for the betterment of humankind,” said Chancellor Barnhart, host of the ceremony, which will make its Killian Court debut this year. “As they begin a new chapter in their lives, our candidates will find lessons and inspiration in Professor Booker’s remarkable professional and personal story. It will be an honor to welcome him home to MIT, and thrilling to hear him speak from the storied Killian Court stage.”

The speaker selection process engages faculty and doctoral students to identify MIT alumni whose acumen, experience, and insight illuminate possible futures for new PhDs and ScDs. Eric Grimson, chancellor for academic advancement, chairs the Commencement Committee. “This is an especially exciting graduation for our doctoral candidates, as we confer their degrees together with their academic hoods for the first time,” he said. “We are exhilarated to welcome Professor Booker as our guest speaker on June 6.” 

Booker attended Austin College in Sherman, Texas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and was a Minnie Stevens Piper Scholar. In the summer of 1986, he conducted research at MIT as a member of a cohort of six students who participated in the very first MIT Summer Research Program, which has now blossomed into an extensive program that welcomes approximately 40 interns from underrepresented backgrounds each year in a multitude of disciplines. He earned his doctoral degree in biochemistry at MIT in 1994, as well as a National Science Foundation–NATO Fellowship for postdoctoral studies at Université René Descartes in Paris, France. Honors continued in 1996 with a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellowship for study at the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin.

A member of the Penn State faculty since 1999, Booker was the recipient of a 2002 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. In 2004, he visited the White House to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award, conferred by President George W. Bush, recognized Booker’s research on enzyme reactions — including his work on an enzyme involved in the synthesis of unusual fatty acids that are needed by the bacteria responsible for most cases of tuberculosis — and his leadership as an educator and mentor. In 2011, he received the American Chemical Society’s Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, which is given “to recognize and encourage excellence in organic chemistry.”

Booker was promoted to associate professor at Penn State in 2005 and, in 2013, professor. In 2015, he was named an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a science philanthropy organization with the mission to advance biomedical research and science education for the benefit of humanity. He was appointed in 2017 to the Eberly Distinguished Chair in Science, one of the highest honors awarded to faculty members in the Penn State Eberly College of Science.

According to a February 2018 announcement by Penn State, “Booker’s main research interests include deciphering the molecular details by which enzymes — a special class of proteins — catalyze reactions in the cell. He uses the insight gained to manipulate these reactions for various objectives, ranging from the production of biofuels to the development of antibacterial agents. His laboratory garnered international attention for elucidating a pathway by which disease-causing bacteria, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, evade entire classes of commonly used antibiotics.” Penn State further notes Booker’s acclaim for research on enzymes employing extremely reactive molecules, known as free radicals, to catalyze their reactions. He has published more than 100 scientific papers in journals, including Science, Nature Chemical Biology, the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and he has served as guest editor for Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, Biochimica Biophysica Acta, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Booker is dedicated to mentoring rising scientists and to spurring students in underrepresented groups to consider STEM careers: To date, he has mentored 18 graduate students, nearly 50 undergraduate students, 16 postdocs and research scientists, and two high school students. “Squire Booker is not just a prolific and path-breaking researcher,” enthuses Professor Timothy Jamison, head of the Department of Chemistry, “his mentoring leadership is shaping the future of our field — and contributing to the pipeline of scholars in science. Moreover, I am grateful for his ongoing and invaluable service to our department and to MIT as a member of our Visiting Committee.”

Booker is past-chair of the Minority Affairs Committee of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and was co-organizer of the society’s 2016 annual meeting. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The 2019 Investiture of Doctoral Hoods and Degree Conferral Ceremony will take place on June 6 at 10 a.m. on Killian Court. The ceremony is open to family, friends, and mentors of doctoral candidates; no tickets are required.

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