Bruce Donald Named James B. Duke Distinguished Professor

July 02, 2012

The Department is pleased to announce the appointment of Bruce Donald as the James B. Duke Professor of Computer Science, effective July 2012.

"This is an unexpected and delightful honor. Professors who have been named to this chair previously are very distinguished," said Donald, who is also a Professor of Biochemistry in the Duke University Medical Center. "Many of the people who have held it are heroes of mine."

The chair, named for the founder of Duke University, is given to a small number of faculty members with extraordinary records of achievement.

Donald, whose research bridges biochemistry and computer science, has been a pioneer in several fields that straddle computer science, mathematics, engineering, biology and chemistry, noted Computer Science Chairman Carlo Tomasi, who nominated Donald for the award.

"Bruce's contributions are in the broad area of physical geometric algorithms," Tomasi said. "Within this broad conceptual framework - that he has worked as much as anyone to define - he has made seminal contributions to the understanding of fields as diverse as robotics, micro-electromechanical systems, and computational structural biology."

Much of Donald's research is focused now on computational biology. Among a number of projects, his lab is determining the three-dimensional (3D) structures of proteins involved in human disease, and making drug-like molecules to treat these diseases. His group uses a combination of techniques, such as nuclear magnetic resonance, x-ray crystallography and geometric algorithms, to determine the shape of proteins.

"Proteins are molecular machines, and the three-dimensional structures are like an architectural blueprint of how the machine works, Donald said. "Once we have the blueprint, we can figure out how to modify its function or target therapeutic drugs to the protein."

With the 3D models in hand, Donald's lab uses algorithms he developed to design drugs that can therapeutically alter the proteins' behavior.

"For example, some proteins involved in disease are enzymes. We can design molecules to inhibit those enzymes," Donald said. "If a protein interacts with another protein and we want to change how they interact because it causes the disease process, we can knock that interaction down."

Experimental tests of his group's drug-like molecules have shown success in the lab. "We have designed molecules that work successfully when tested in vitro and ex vivo on human cells, for diseases ranging from leukemia, to cystic fibrosis, to HIV. Some of the molecules we designed are going into clinical trials, but they are not ready for patients yet," Donald said. "More testing is required."

Donald joined Duke in 2006 and previously was a professor at Cornell University and Dartmouth College. He received his bachelor's degree from Yale University and his doctorate from MIT. He has been a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on algorithms for structural proteomics. In 2011, the MIT Press published his new textbook, on algorithms in structural molecular biology.

"His scientific production continues unabated," Tomasi said. "His knowledge of the relevant disciplines is profound, his creativity is unbridled, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He is a great teacher, mentor and all-around educator, and his students love him and thrive under his guidance. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the honor he has received, and I am grateful for the prestige he brings to our department."