Blue Hen Chemist Number 36

August 2009
Retiring after 36 Years
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Biochemistry Professor, Roberta F. Colman, Retiring after 36 Years

Roberta Colman, Willis F. Harrington Professor, joined our Department in 1973 as its fifth biochemist. Her distinguished career in research started early as a recipient of a Westinghouse Science Talent Search Award. She graduated from Radcliffe College summa cum laude and went on to graduate school at Harvard where she received a PhD under the direction of the renowned physical organic chemist, Frank Westheimer. After postdoctoral fellowships at NIH and Washington University in St Louis, Roberta joined the faculty in the Department of Biological Chemistry at Washington University in 1966. A year later, she moved to the Department of Biological Chemistry at Harvard Medical School.

During her highly productive career, Prof. Colman has published over 260 articles in premier biochemistry journals such as the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Biochemistry, Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and Protein Science. Many of her publications have dealt with the structure of the active sites of enzymes and the function of various amino acid side chains in enzyme catalysis. She pioneered the use of particular reactive nucleotide analogs as affinity labels to probe enzyme active sites. As a world authority on the structure and function of NAD- and NADP-linked isocitrate dehydrogenases and other enzymes such as glutamate dehydrogenase, pyruvate kinase, glutathione S-transferase, adenylosuccinate lyase and adenylosuccinate synthase, she has established numerous collaborations and received many honors.

Nationally, Prof. Colman is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of numerous professional societies. Among other positions, she was treasurer of the American Society for Biological Chemists from 1981-1985. She served on the Executive Council of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) from 1993-1996 and in 1996 she received the Herbert A. Sober Award for scientific achievement from the ASBMB. She served as chair of the Division of Biological Chemistry of the American Chemical Society from 1998-2000. In 1985, she received the University of Delaware’s highest faculty award, the Francis Allison Award for “that faculty member who has made the most outstanding contributions to his/her field.” Her research accomplishments led to being on the editorial board of Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics for 27 years including 17 years as an Executive Editor. She was Associate Editor of Protein Chemistry for 6 years and has served on the editorial boards of several other journals including the Journal of Biological Chemistry and Protein Science.

Throughout her career at Delaware, Roberta Colman has maintained a well-funded research group of about 10 people including visiting faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, research assistants, and undergraduates. Nearly 30 graduate students have completed their dissertations under her guidance. Many of these associates have gone on to distinguished careers elsewhere. In addition, she has been the program director of the University of Delaware’s NIH-funded Chemistry-Biology Interface graduate program from 1993 to the present. She was honored for her 16 years of service as CBI director at a gathering on 07/13/09, celebrating the aquisition of the U of D’s fourth consecutive grant (this one for $1.3M) from the CBI Predoctoral Training Program, funded by the National Institutes of General Medicine. Students in her laboratory have received excellent training. In addition to her work with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, a large proportion of the undergraduates who have worked in her laboratory have become coauthors on scientific publications.

Graduate students and undergraduates over the years will remember Roberta Colman as their teacher in the graduate-level biochemistry core courses, CHEM-641 and 642. She also has taught CHEM-214 Elementary Biochemistry for non majors and CHEM-840, Mechanisms of Enzyme Regulation.

Professor Colman has taken special interest in nurturing and enabling women and minority scientists early in their careers. She has done this through mentoring students in her own laboratory and also through service on national committees such as the Committee on Women in Biochemistry and the Educational Affairs Committee of the ASBMB. She notes that there has been a dramatic change in the involvement of women in science during her career. When she took her first course in chemistry as an undergraduate at Harvard, she was one of only 5 women in a class of 300 men. In contrast, today at the University of Delaware nearly equal numbers of women and men are undergraduate majors, and graduate students in Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Professor Colman has enjoyed traveling. With her husband Robert, she has used summer vacations to travel the world from the Antarctic to Asia and Africa. In each country, she has taken in the local culture and natural history of each and returned with photographs to share.

For those of us who have seen Roberta Colman as a permanent resident of the first floor of the North Wing of Brown Laboratory for more than three and a half decades, it will be hard to imagine the space as anything else but Colman’s lab. We will miss Bobbie and wish her the best in her future travels.

- Hal White