Chemistry and biochemistry professor recognized for strength of teaching, research

by | Jan 21, 2020

A patent and a teaching award from the National Society of Leadership and Success rounded out the last decade for Distinguished Professor George Gokel.
Distinguished Professor of National Society of Leadership and Success recognized Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry George Gokel for the quality of his teaching at the end of last year. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The National Society of Leadership and Success recognized Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry George Gokel for the quality of his teaching at the end of last year. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When George Gokel opened the email informing him that he’d won a teaching award from the National Society of Leadership and Success, the University of Missouri–St. Louis professor was grateful but surprised.

“I didn’t know the organization,” Gokel said. “I sent a message to the chair, asking him if he knew the organization. You can imagine how stunned I was when I saw a couple of hundred people assembled there when we got to the actual meeting.”

Gokel, a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry and former director of the Center for NanoScience, has accomplished a long list of achievements, which includes 16 patents and becoming a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. He’s also been recognized with the American Chemical Society Midwest Award, the James B. Eads Award of the Academy of Science, the UMSL Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research and Creativity and more.

A faculty member as distinguished as Gokel could justifiably focus on research and not on teaching, but he cares deeply about giving his students a quality education. That’s what makes this award especially poignant for Gokel.

“It means a great deal to me because I put a great deal of effort into teaching,” he said. “People are sometimes surprised that I teach undergraduates, but I think undergraduates deserve to have experienced scientists teaching them. There’s a lot of new language in organic chemistry. It can be befuddling, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s actually a very logical discipline. But most students come in being scared of the course, so you need to start off simply and explain that there’s nothing mystical or unreasonable.”

Gokel rotates between teaching “Organic Chemistry,” “Advanced Physical Organic Chemistry” and a graduate seminar.

Gokel values presenting his students with material in a manner that is contemporaneous and engaging. For Gokel, that means no teaching from notes but instead focusing on key topics during each lesson. He believes in helping students learn unfamiliar terms and concepts by comparing them to familiar ones.

Hearing from students who’ve found his courses valuable is the best reward in Gokel’s mind.

“I know that I’ve had a positive effect on people’s lives,” he said. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of that. I think part of the reason we should be in a university is we should be teaching. My research has been very important to me, and I’ve done OK. But teaching is important, and I like it.”

Gokel is known at UMSL and beyond for his work in synthetic organic chemistry. In November, the United States Patent Office once again recognized the value of Gokel’s research by issuing his most-recent patent, “Molecules that Inhibit Efflux Pumps in Multi-drug Resistant Bacteria and Uses Thereof.” Gokel’s group includes Mohit Patel, research associate in chemistry; Saeedeh Negin, post-doctoral fellow in chemistry; and Michael R. Gokel, an electrical engineer who holds a courtesy appointment at UMSL and is Gokel’s son.

They started their research with the goal of making an artificial ion channel. That’s a protein that helps pass things, such as nutrients or waste, through a cell membrane. When they accomplished that goal, the group began thinking about how that invention might be useful.

The current patent application uses that artificial channel to help antibiotics get into bacterial cells, which increases the medicine’s potency. Gokel believes their invention could help combat antibiotic resistance, a growing problem identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It also has a property we did not anticipate of blocking the proteins that would ordinarily push antibiotics out of a cell,” he said. “More gets in, less antibiotic gets pushed out, so you have a more potent antimicrobial, and we’re trying to develop that. We have some that have very high activity against several organisms, like pneumonia and tuberculosis. We know that our compounds are quite active against a number of bacteria that are resistant to drugs like Vancomycin, which is a drug of last resort.”

Gokel’s group formed a startup company, Upaya Pharmaceuticals, and has done tests in mice for toxicity and bioavailability, and it is working on developing a way for the molecule to be taken orally in conjunction with antibiotics. By the time the drug is ready for clinical trials, Gokel hopes to sell the company and has already begun to see interest on that front.

Until then, he’ll be focusing on investigating molecule analogues and other testing with a contract research organization. This work has been supported in part by University of Missouri System FastTrack Funding Awards.

“We’re still interested in all of the peripheral questions, like how do these compounds actually work?” Gokel said. “How do they enter membranes? How do they foster ion transport and regulation? But those are the academic questions that we need to answer to better understand the biological activity because the truth is there are lots of interesting materials. There are lots of interesting compounds, but many of them don’t have any particular purpose. And these compounds could potentially be lifesaving.”

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen