Rommie Amaro, UC Irvine assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences and computer science, has been selected by President Obama for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists & Engineers.

She’s among 94 recipients of the award, which was established in 1996 by the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and is the nation’s highest honor for young scientists and engineers at the outset of their careers. Winners get a citation, a plaque and funding for up to five years to advance their research.

Amaro, 34, was lauded for her use of cutting-edge computational methods to help discover new drugs and to explore and shed light on the complex machinery of life at the microscopic level.

She and her colleagues employ large-scale computing resources — so-called “supercomputers” — to predict how proteins in cells will mutate and reveal binding spots on their surfaces that could be targeted by pharmaceuticals. Amaro’s work focuses on influenza, chlamydia, cancer and neglected diseases, such as African sleeping sickness, that inordinately affect the planet’s most underprivileged people.

“After only two years at UCI, Rommie is already widely recognized as among the most avant-garde of the next generation of academic scientists,” said Richard Chamberlin, professor and chair of pharmaceutical sciences. “Working to revitalize the complex process of searching for new medicines, particularly those so badly needed in developing countries, she exemplifies the best of what we are trying to accomplish at UCI in the development of more productive tools for discovering new ways of treating disease.”

A native of Chicago’s South Side, Amaro earned a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at UC San Diego, she joined UCI in 2009 and also holds a faculty appointment in chemistry.

In 2010, she won the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, a five-year, $2.3 million grant that qualified her for the Presidential Early Career Award.

“I feel extremely fortunate,” Amaro said. “Both the Early Career and New Innovator awards are enabling my lab to engage in high-risk research that I hope will help transform the way we use computers in health-related research – and, in particular, how we leverage computational technologies to help develop potential new drug therapies.”

The Presidential Early Career Awards embody the high priority the Obama administration places on producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the nation’s goals, tackle grand challenges and contribute to the American economy. Sixteen federal departments and agencies join together annually to nominate the most meritorious scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for ensuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies’ missions.

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