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Research that has the potential to provide novel solutions to important problems such as treating Alzheimer’s disease or producing new refrigerants kinder to the ozone layer has earned Tennessee Tech University chemical engineering associate professor Donald P. Visco Jr. the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers.

Visco received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers at a White House ceremony in Washington, D.C., last week. He was one of only 57 recipients honored for displaying exceptional potential for leadership early in their scientific careers.

Eight federal departments and agencies annually nominate engineers and scientists at the start of their careers whose work shows the greatest promise to benefit the nominating agency’s mission. The Department of Energy nominated Visco after awarding him the Early Career Scientist and Engineering Award through the National Nuclear Security Administration Office of Defense Programs.

“We are very proud of Dr. Visco’s accomplishments,” said TTU College of Engineering Dean Glen Johnson. “He now joins Dr. John Zhu as the second of our faculty to win a national-level career award from a major government agency. Dr. Visco is the first of our faculty members in memory to win a technical award from the Office of the President.”

Visco’s award-winning work developed during recent summer collaborative efforts at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif. The value of his work can best be understood by first looking at the challenge scientists face when searching for compounds with particular properties. To develop a new drug or create new lubricants, solvents or refrigerants, scientists need to be able to conduct accurate, timely and cost-effective searches of all the possible chemical compounds that could be used. But the chemical universe offers an unwieldy dataset, estimated at about 10 to the 60th power.

“You could never start with such a hopelessly large number, so techniques are needed to form a drastically smaller and focused subset of potential solutions,” says Visco.

Take the recent news that the drugs Vioxx and Celebrex, commonly prescribed for arthritis patients, have been linked to heart problems. New drugs could be designed with similar properties that don’t have that undesirable side effect. But scientists face searching through millions and millions of compounds to find one that can be used to design a similar drug. That’s where Visco’s development and testing of a new technique can make all the difference.

What Visco designed, in conjunction with collaborators at Sandia National Laboratories, was the introduction of a molecular descriptor, called "Signature," which quantifies and describes a molecule’s structure.

“Signature is simply a way to encode and describe the local environment of an atom in a molecule so that we can understand its structure,” he says.

The field in which Visco is working, QSAR, or quantitative structure-activity relationships, has long sought a way to glean information about the structure of compounds and use that information to make predictions about other compounds. Early results using Signature show that scientists can now take a small set with known properties and generate a much larger database of compounds that have optimal properties for the problem at hand.

“The technique of Signature is independent of the problem waiting to be solved,” said Visco. “Involving students at Tennessee Tech, we’re trying it in a wide variety of areas.”

At least five projects involving students under Visco’s advisement are currently using Signature to solve problems. One student is seeking to design a new refrigerant to replace ozone depleting ones. Another student is working to create a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Other projects include research into the Vioxx and Celebrex alternative and a new add mixture for concrete.

"Working at Sandia has been an amazing and energizing opportunity,” says Visco. “Collaborative efforts such as this promote the university and open doors for our students.”

Each Presidential Award winner received a citation, plaque and a commitment for continued funding of their work from their agency for five years. Visco’s award amounts to $250,000 over the five-year period. The Center for the Management, Utilization and Protection of Water Resources is providing additional support for Visco’s work through a graduate student and funding for software not covered by the award.

“Don Visco is well deserving of this recognition by the president of the United States and the Department of Energy,” said Dennis George, TTU's director of the Center for Water Resources. “His work with molecular Signatures allows him to find new compounds matching certain desired properties and is an extremely exciting area of research. It can be applied in both industry and the environment.

“This honor not only reflects well on Don but also on the university as a whole as it continues to invest and engage in high-quality research,” George said.