Chemistry professor wins NIH award for innovative research

Douglas A. Mitchell, professor of chemistry, is one of the winners of the 2011 National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator award. The award recognizes young individuals who have shown promising research and have potential to make an impact on the health care industry.

Mitchell’s research focuses on trying to disrupt toxin biosynthesis in human bacterial pathogens. Doing this, Mitchell said, can lead to suppressing the rise of drug resistance and protecting the beneficial bacteria that is required for proper physiology. In a nutshell, Mitchell is basically tricking bad bacteria in the body into being good bacteria, instead of killing it completely.

He will receive $1.5 million over a span of five years for the honor. Mitchell is only one of two professors in the state of Illinois to receive the prestigious award.

“The money will be used to pursue research into next generation antimicrobials,” Mitchell said. “The award allows me to pursue innovative research that likely would have been deemed too risky for typical funding mechanisms. With a high-risk project, there is always the potential for a high reward if the projects are successful. It’s a little too early to say anything concrete right now, but clearly, we have the financial opportunity to explore some ideas that we are passionate about.”

Ravi Basavappa, program director at The NIH Common Fund, said the honor is different from traditional NIH grants.

“The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award program is designed specifically for unusually creative scientists with highly innovative research ideas at an early stage of their career when they may lack the preliminary data required for an R01 grant (another NIH grant),” he said. “Dr. Mitchell’s project showed exemplary evidence of all these things, which is why he was selected as an award winner.”

In 2002, Mitchell earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. He then earned his doctorate at the University of California at Berkley in 2006. Shortly after, Mitchell worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at San Diego before joining the University of Illinois faculty in 2009.

Kathrine Woodall, graduate student, said the award is beneficial to Mitchell’s lab and its work.

“Knowing that we will have the funds to provide us with the tools we need to carry out our research is reassuring and lets us as students focus on our work,” Woodall said. “This will allow us to make more swift progress toward finding new ways to combat pathogens by targeting virulence.”