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(Last updated 10/27/05)

Previous stories pertaining to Professor Zhong's research:

"Scientists Get First Glimpse At How Plants,Most Animals Repair UV-Damaged DNA," 9/12/05.


COLUMBUS , Ohio – An Ohio State University physicist and leader in the field of femtobiology has been named a Fellow by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Dongping Zhong, assistant professor of physics and adjunct professor of chemistry and biochemistry, was one of 16 promising researchers named as the 2005 recipients of Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering. Each Fellow will receive an unrestricted, five-year research grant of $625,000.

Dongping Zhong

"I am so pleased by this recognition for Dongping and his research," said Richard R. Freeman, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. "His work in biophysics demonstrates emerging fields at the edge of disciplines - the overlap between biology and physics, in this case - where new discoveries will take place in the 21st century."

Zhong's research focuses on femtobiology – the use of laser light to illuminate biological reactions that happen too fast to be seen with the naked eye.

Within living cells, molecules of water, DNA, and proteins are always on the move, with chemical bonds forming and breaking in tiny fractions of a second to perform tasks essential to life, Zhong explained.

To see these reactions, he and his colleagues hit molecules with a kind of laser strobe light that lets them take a very fast series of measurements. Assembled like a set of stop-motion photographs, the measurements reveal the individual steps of a biological function as it happens.

Each light pulse is so short, its duration is measured in femtoseconds – quadrillionths of a second – and so the general technique is called femtochemistry. Scientists began using it in the 1990s to study chemical catalysts and electronic materials, but back then, Zhong knew that he wanted to do something different.

In 1999, the trained laser physicist had just finished his doctorate in chemistry – and then realized that what he really wanted to do was study biology. But he wasn't following a random path – he was really just zeroing in on a new discipline: femtobiology.

“We're writing a unique story at OSU,” Zhong said. “Maybe in the future, we can form one complete picture of DNA damage and repair, from beginning to end.”

And since his doctoral advisor was Ahmed Zewail, the scientist at the California Institute of Technology who just that year had won the Nobel Prize for his work in femtochemsitry, Zhong had the resources to follow his unique path.

He remained in Zewail's lab for three years as a postdoctoral researcher, learning everything he could about biology, then came to Ohio State in 2002 – in large part because of a research thrust in femto-science that is underway here. He was also the first person hired in the Department of Physics' efforts to expand biophysics research through Ohio State 's Selective Investment program.

Zhong cited the laser facilities at the university's Center for Chemical and Biophysical Dynamics as an important resource for groups across campus that are laying the groundwork in this new field.

In particular, his work in the Department of Physics meshes well with a group in the Department of Chemistry. The chemists are using ultra-fast laser pulses to study how ultraviolet light damages DNA. Zhong's group recently discovered how cells repair this damage.

“We're writing a unique story at OSU,” Zhong said. “Maybe in the future, we can form one complete picture of DNA damage and repair, from beginning to end.”

He'll use his funds from the Packard Fellowship to expand his research staff and buy new equipment. He is currently focusing on the role that water molecules play in critical cellular functions like protein folding and DNA repair.

What he learns could impact research into diseases such as cancer and Parkinson's. Still, because femtobiology is such a new field, Zhong knows that he would have difficulty finding funding outside of the university, were it not for unrestricted grants such as his new Fellowship.

This year, the Packard Foundation invited the presidents of 50 top universities nationwide to nominate Fellows, and chose Zhong and 15 others who hailed from universities including the California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Johns Hopkins University .

The Packard Fellowship was established in 1988 to strengthen university-based science and engineering programs by supporting unusually creative researchers early in their careers. Fellows are given “no strings attached” support in a broad range of disciplines that includes physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, astronomy, computer science, earth science, ocean science, and all branches of engineering.

Over 17 years, the program has awarded 364 Fellowships totaling over $212 million to faculty members at 52 top national universities. Zhong is the first winner from Ohio State .


Contact: Dongping Zhong, (614) 292-3044; Zhong.28@osu.edu

Written by Pam Frost Gorder, (614) 292-9475; Gorder.1@osu.edu