July 6, 2020
Dr. Heather Carlson

Heather A. Carlson, PhD, has been named chair of the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy Department of Medicinal Chemistry. Her term began on July 1. Prof. Carlson started her academic career at the University in 2000. 

“One of my first goals as department chair is to increase the faculty's awareness of the marginalization that many groups face,” explains Prof. Carlson. “I have educational programing on recognizing and combating bias planned for every faculty meeting. We cannot fight problems that we do not know exist.”  

“The College of Pharmacy is greatly invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts,” continues Prof. Carlson. “I believe the Department of Medicinal Chemistry can take steps to further improve the climate and create an even more welcoming environment for all of our faculty and students.”

Made even more difficult by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, facilitating faculty and student collaboration is another key priority for Prof. Carlson.

“I would like to see more collaborations across the faculty, and I will implement a new program to facilitate those interactions,” says Prof. Carlson. “I will fund a graduate student to work in two labs to further a new collaborative project between two Medicinal Chemistry faculty. The goal is to support efforts to generate new data for collaborative papers and grant applications and to diversify the training of our graduate students.”

As a member of the Executive Committees of the College of Pharmacy and the Rackham Graduate School, Prof. Carlson brings a wealth of leadership experience to her new role. Further adding to her leadership credentials, she was the Director of the Community Structure-Activity Resource from 2008-2015, which organized international challenges to test docking and scoring methods for structure-based drug discovery.

Prof. Carlson received her BS in Mathematics, Chemistry, and Physics from North Central College in Naperville, IL in 1991.  She received her MS (1992) and PhD (1997) under the tutelage of Prof. William L. Jorgensen at Yale University.  She received postdoctoral fellowships from the American Cancer Society and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund program, La Jolla Interfaces in Science, to study protein simulations and computational biology with Prof. J. Andrew McCammon at the University of California, San Diego.

Prof. Carlson was appointed as the John Gideon Searle Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry in 2000.  In 2011, she was promoted to Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, and Chemistry, LSA.  She has received two teaching awards, one chosen by her peers and one by the students.

Prof. Carlson’s research broadly addresses computer modeling of protein-ligand interactions, from the basic biophysics of molecular recognition to applied inhibitor design.  Funding from the NIH has allowed her to develop techniques for incorporating protein flexibility into drug discovery and methods for mapping protein surfaces to discover druggable allosteric and orthosteric binding sites.  Funding from the Beckman Foundation, the NSF, and the NIH has allowed her to create Binding MOAD (Mother of All Databases), one of the largest collections of protein-ligand complexes with binding data.  The latest enhancement to the database is the addition cross-linked data showing potential polypharmacology events where ligands can bind to different proteins with similar binding sites.  Polypharmacology can aide in drug repurposing and in identifying the causes of drug side effects.

Prof. Carlson’s research efforts have been well recognized by leading scientific and professional organizations. In 2002, Prof. Carlson was named a Beckman Young Investigator.  In 2006, she received an NSF CAREER Award and a Wiley International Journal of Quantum Chemistry Young Investigator Award.  In 2008, she was chosen for the Corwin Hansch Award from the Cheminformatics and QSAR Society.  She was chosen for the international honor of Novartis Chemistry Lecturer by Novartis Pharma AG for 2009-2010.  In 2011, she was elected a Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science, Chemistry Division.