Michael L. Klein, CST dean, wins prestigious John Scott Award

Michael L. Klein, dean of the College of Science and Technology (CST), has earned the prestigious John Scott Award for developing algorithms for computational simulation of biological systems and the development of antimicrobial peptides.


Presented to those contributing to the “comfort, welfare and happiness” of humankind, past winners include Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk and Nikola Tesla, as well as three current CST faculty members, a CST graduate and a member of the college’s Board of Visitors.


Klein most recent work, in collaboration with William DeGrado, a researcher at the University of California San Francisco and fellow recipient of the John Scott Award, is the discovery and development of Brilacidin, a synthetic molecule with antimicrobial properties that recently completed a phase II clinical trial as a treatment for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.


“Brilacidin is now among our best options to fight antimicrobial resistant strains of bacterial infections, one of the scariest global threats,” explains Vincenzo Carnevale, professor of research at CST’s Institute for Computational Molecular Science (ICMS), who notes that the last truly novel class of antimicrobial molecules—not an optimization of pre-existing molecules—was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1987.


“It is very humbling, even more so when one realizes who has been honored with this award in the past,” says Klein, who joined CST as Laura H. Carnell Professor of Science and ICMS director in 2009. “It’s especially pleasing to be recognized by the City of Philadelphia, a place where my research group has used the tools of high-performance computing to produce exciting predictions about the behavior of assemblies of all kinds of molecules under different conditions, such as gases, liquids, solids and glasses. The predictions from many creative works have sometimes taken decades to be confirmed.”


The John Scott Award is administered by a committee of Philadelphians appointed by the Board of Directors of City Trusts of the City of Philadelphia. This year’s award reception, held at the American Philosophical Society on November 18, will honor both the 2020 recipients, Klein, DeGrado and Jean Bennett, and the 2021 awardees, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman.


“This recognition owes an enormous debt to the many dedicated members of my research group over the past 50 years or so,” says Klein, who, prior to his appointment as CST dean in 2013, spent 22 years on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, serving as director of the National Science Foundation sponsored Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter from 1993 to 2009. “I have been blessed to have had many very talented scientists as collaborators, and as a bonus, count them among my friends.”


Previous John Scott Award winners from the College of Science and Technology


CST’s previous John Scott Award winners are professor emeritus and member of the CST Board of Visitors Franklin Davis for his discoveries of new experimental procedures for the synthesis of molecular structures; Masatoshi Nei, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Biology, for contributions to population and evolutionary genetics theory; and John Perdew, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Physics and Chemistry, for his groundbreaking role in the development of a computational modeling method used to investigate the structure of atoms and molecules.


James West, CST ’56, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins University, was honored in 2018 for inventions relating to the foil electret microphone. Madeleine Joullié, professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania who serves on CST’s Board of Visitors, was also honored in 2015 for her research on the synthesis of natural products, which has led to the creation of antiviral and antibacterial compounds.


In the early 1800s, John Scott, an Edinburgh chemist, set up a fund with the entity entrusted with the management of Benjamin Franklin’s legacy to bestow a small honorarium to “ingenious men or women who make useful inventions.” The first awards in 1834 went to the inventors of a knitting machine and a door lock. Since the 1920s, most awards have gone to honorees in science and medicine, recognizing such contributions as the prevention of yellow fever and the development of penicillin.


-Greg Fornia

November 15, 2021