Peacock-Lopez awarded $155,000 research grant

The National Science Foundation awarded a grant totaling $155,000 to Williams College in support of research by Enrique Peacock-Lopez, associate professor of chemistry. Peacock-Lopez’s project, entitled “A Dynamical Study of Chemical and Biochemical Mechanisms,” expands the department’s work in the area of chemical and biochemical reactions.

The grant promotes further research on models already developed by Peacock-Lopez that are designed to explain the dynamics of metabolite concentrations in cascade reaction mechanisms. Specifically, the research will aid in the understanding of biological responses to initial protein “signals” at the molecular level, such as pulsitile secretion and regulation of pituitary hormones.

For the layman, this research will result in the creation of mathematical models measuring the concentration of hormones, proteins and other substances in the body as they vary over time. Peacock-Lopez gave the example of modeling the exact linkages and quantities of glucose, diet, and blood pressure in the body over time to see how they interact.

“The theory that everything is in equilibrium is wrong,” said Peacock-Lopez. “[The levels of these substances] are not constant over time and we’ve seen cyclical change.”

Peacock-Lopez’s research could make significant steps towards curing diseases like lupus. The models provide a picture of the levels of hormones in the body, which could help scientists better understand and cure diseases linked to changes in hormone concentrations.

An abstract physical chemist in thermodynamics before he came to Williams in 1988, Peacock-Lopez altered the direction of his research after finding it difficult to include students in his thermodynamics research. His first thesis student broke into his current field of study, sparking Peacock-Lopez’s interest. He has since turned out ten publications, nine of which involved students.

“If I didn’t have my students, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do,” said Peacock-Lopez. “One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is to work with students.”

Peacock-Lopez finds the resources available at Williams very beneficial to his research. Not only did the College help fund his project since 1996, when his last grant from the National Science Foundation ran out, but he also finds the faculty at Williams to be an unparalleled resource.

Peacock-Lopez will be collaborating very closely with Steven Swoap, assistant professor of biology, in his upcoming research. While Peacock-Lopez is more of an expert on theory, Swoap is an experimental scientist who specializes in physiology. Swoap’s animals will assist Peacock-Lopez in his study of regulation in biological systems, such as blood pressure regulation. Peacock-Lopez is very excited about being able to continue his research with Swoap.

“Being able to go see Swoap and say ‘Show me the rats’ is a great resource,” said Peacock-Lopez.

Peacock-Lopez’s research will also increase the emphasis on theory in the chemistry department, which as of yet has not been a major focus. Theory in the sciences is growing at Williams, and Peacock-Lopez hopes that his research will attract more students interested in theory into the department.

Coming from a background as a physical chemist, Peacock-Lopez’s shift toward biochemistry started when he came to Williams and received a grant in the early 90’s from the NSF. His interest in theory and modeling drew him towards the project.

When commenting on the close relationship he will have with the biology department as his research continues, Peacock-Lopez explained that his work is “multi-disciplinary in the theory sense.”

Peacock-Lopez teaches a range of courses including thermodynamics, biophysical chemistry, quantum theory, and the concepts of chemistry at the College. He received a B.S. from Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and a Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego.