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2014 Smissman Memorial Lecturer

Barbara Imperiali, Ph.D. 

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Class of 1922 Professor of Biology and Professor of Chemistry
Departments of Biology and Chemistry
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA

Public Lecture and Award Presentation

  • Explorations at the Chemistry/Biology Interface
    4:30 p.m.Thursday, November 13
    Alderson Auditorium, Kansas Union

Scientific Lectures

  • Fluorescent Amino Acids for Sensing Activities and Interactions
    9:30 a.m., Thursday, November 13
    Alderson Auditorium, Kansas Union
  • Protein Glycosylation: Pathways, Processes and Potential Virulence Targets
    12 p.m., Friday, November 14
    Room 3020, School of Pharmacy Building, 2010 Becker Drive


Barbara Imperiali completed her undergraduate studies at University College London, receiving a BSc (First Class with Honours) in Medicinal Chemistry in 1979.  She then moved to the United States to pursue graduate studies in synthetic organic chemistry under the supervision of Professor Satoru Masamune. In 1983 she was awarded a PhD from MIT for research on the development of stereoselective aldol reactions and their application in the synthesis of the ansa bridge of Rifamycin S. She then followed her long-standing interests in biochemistry carrying out postdoctoral studies first at MIT and then in 1984 she moved to the Biochemistry Department at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA where she worked with the late Professor Robert Abeles.  At Brandeis, Imperiali's research was focused on the development of peptidyl fluoromethyl ketones as potent inhibitors of serine proteases and it was at this time that she gained a real appreciation of her training in synthetic organic chemistry as she applied her skills to challenging synthetic targets in bioorganic chemistry and chemical biology.  Her research on serine proteases also introduced her to the larger field of enzyme-catalyzed protein modification biochemistry, which has remained as a theme in all of her independent career through studies of protein glycosylation and phosphorylation.

Dr. Imperiali began her independent professional career as an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA in 1986. In 1989, she moved to Pasadena, CA to join the faculty at the California Institute of Technology where she ultimately earned the rank of Professor of Chemistry in 1997. In July 1999, Professor Imperiali returned to MIT as the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Chemistry. Her current appointment at MIT is as the Class of 1922 Professor of Biology and Chemistry and she is also an Associate Member of the Broad Institute. In 2001, Imperiali was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2004 she was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry of Great Britain. In 2010, Dr. Imperiali was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Research in the Imperiali group centers on the application of biochemical, biophysical and synthetic organic chemistry approaches to challenges in protein science with an emphasis on protein modification reactions. Current activities in the group focus on the design, synthesis and application of chemical tools for the study of complex biological systems.  Her group has developed sensitive and selective for modulating and measuring dynamic cellular activities.  In particular, innovative methods for directly and selectively sensing protein kinase activities with a fluorescent readout using chelation-enhanced fluorescence provided by quinoline-based amino acids have been developed, patented and commercialized and now form the basis of the Invitrogen OMINA┬« kinase assay platform. The Imperiali group has also established synthetic methodology for the preparation of caged phosphoamino acids, which can be integrated into peptides and proteins and exploited to provide incisive information on the specific cellular functions of individual protein phosphorylation events. Chemical tools developed by the Imperiali group have been applied to studies on cell migration, cell cycle control and the regulation of synaptic plasticity.  Throughout her career, Imperiali has also investigated the complex processes of enzyme-catalyzed protein glycosylation. Most recently, the unexpected discovery of N- and O-linked protein glycosylation systems in prokaryotic pathogens has inspired research that focuses on understanding the roles of cell surface carbohydrates in infection and pathogenicity as well as new biochemical and biophysical approaches for understanding the molecular logic of N-linked glycosylation pathways and processes. In a career spanning 28 years, she has authored over 180 research publications and has been the research advisor of more than 40 graduate students and 50 postdoctoral associates.

Over the years, Dr. Imperiali has served on the editorial board of a number of scientific journals and she has participated in organizing workshops and scientific meetings.  She is most proud of her efforts, together with Professors Craig Townsend and Glenn Prestwich, in establishing the Bioorganic Chemistry Gordon Research Conference, which ran for the first time in 1992 and has been offered annually ever since.

Dr. Imperiali's scientific awards include a Sloan Foundation Fellowship (1993), a Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award (1993), the American Chemical Society Cope Scholar Award (1996), the American Chemical Society Breslow Award for Achievement in Biomimetic Chemistry (2006), the Emil Kaiser Award of the Protein Society (2006), and the du Vigneaud Award of the American Peptide Society (2006).   In addition to these honors Dr. Imperiali has been richly recognized for contribution to teaching both at Caltech and MIT.  In particular she received the Caltech Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 1998 and at MIT she was awarded the School of Science Prize for excellence in undergraduate education in 2002 and she was named a Margaret MacVicar Fellow in 2003 in recognition of her contributions to education at the Institute.

Dr. Imperiali's interests extend well beyond chemistry. She is an avid hiker, backpacker and scuba diver and she relishes time "off the grid" enjoying adventures around the world.






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