SOCORRO, N.M., November 10, 1999 -- New Mexico Tech biology professor Snezna Rogelj recently added to the state-supported research university's national repute by being honored with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Defense Programs Early Career Scientist and Engineer Award.

Rogelj was notified earlier this month that she had been named a recipient of the award--one of the nation's highest awards honoring young researchers--after being nominated by Sandia National Laboratories.

Rogelj becomes the second Tech faculty member in as many years named to receive the award. Last year, New Mexico Tech chemistry professor Christopher Paul Palmer was the recipient of both the DOE's Defense Programs Early Career Scientist and Engineer Award and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Having won the DOE award, Rogelj now also becomes eligible for consideration for the presidential award which further recognizes the nation's outstanding young researchers.

"My having been named to receive this award came as a complete surprise to me," Rogelj says. "I can only assume that it was given to me in recognition of my broad interests in science. . . . I've worked in many different fields over the course of my career and now they all seem to be coming together.

"I think that this award is a vote of confidence," she adds.

Rogelj's current research interests center on the molecular mechanisms of leukocyte target recognition in the human immune and inflammatory responses. Leukocytes are the white blood cells that protect us from injury and infection.

"My recent research has focused on how leukocytes control their adhesiveness and has resulted in a discovery of a novel regulatory pathway," Rogelj relates. "It's a Rube Goldberg kind of sequence: Biochemical events that occur along this pathway determine the expression of a critical cell surface adhesion molecule, which in turn determines the ability of a leukocyte to recognize its target. Signals that lead to a loss of cell adhesiveness, therefore, result in suppression of the immune response. And, suppression of the immune system may or may not be a good thing."

The work that Rogelj and her research colleagues have done in these areas has resulted in a number of patent disclosures for drugs that interfere with the inflammation associated with diseases such as septic shock, reperfusion injury (severe complications that follow heart attacks, strokes, and organ transplants), and autoimmune demyelinating disorders.

A surprising implication of this developed model--the potential to interfere with the HIV entry into lymphocytes and the pathogenesis of AIDS--is also being explored.

"On the other hand, we are finding that several widely used pesticides and pollutants cause profound immuno-suppression and perhaps even infertility," Rogelj points out. "And, that is the dark side of our results."

Rogelj explains that all living organisms are elaborate and dynamic structures.

"Their complexity is built from simple molecular building blocks; yet, the emergent properties endow them with entirely novel features," she says.

"The simple building blocks are arranged into delicate instruments, each optimized to function within its size realm," Rogelj says. "Compartmentalization and specialization, two repeated themes in biological systems, further permit organization by ranks of molecular switches.

"We are built from the bottom up," Rogelj adds. "We all started off as a single cell. So, in a sense, the materials of which we are made are programmed to self-assemble."

Biological adhesion molecules mediate self-assembly of specialized cells into complex organs, for example into bone, or liver, or skin, or blood vessel, or brain tissue.

"Biological adhesion molecules then constitute a new, far-out way to assemble small inorganic manufactured parts," Rogelj points out. "The production of fine composite materials, such as 'cermets'--mixtures of ceramic and metal grains--could be enhanced by preprogramming the granular building blocks using 'smart' biological adhesives."

Clues taken from the evolutionary successes of Nature promise to have direct applications to the burgeoning research fields of biomimetics and nanotechnologies.

"We eventually hope to use biological adhesion molecules to 'program' non-biological materials to form circuits, to carry out sensing functions, or to self-assemble into useful mechanical gadgets," Rogelj says.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson will present Rogelj and five other recipients with the DOE's Defense Program Early Career Scientist and Engineer Award in a Washington, D.C. ceremony
sometime later this year or early next year.