Benkovics support pioneering research in chemistry and the life sciences


By Cole Hons 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — You might think of Patricia and Stephen Benkovic as Penn State’s “first couple of chemistry,” considering all the pioneering contributions they’ve made at the University in their shared discipline over a span of more than five decades. Now the pair are giving back to their research community in an exciting new way, hoping to inspire the next generation of scientists to carry the torch of innovation and discovery to even greater heights.

The Patricia and Stephen Benkovic Research Initiative is a funding mechanism designed to directly support fresh, bold research projects at the interface of chemistry and the life sciences. For projects to be considered, they must be deemed too risky or untested to receive traditional sources of funding. It’s this kind of science that both Benkovics, as a team, feel truly passionate about.

“Pat and I have worked together since we were married back in 1961,” Benkovic explained. “Although I have been the public recipient of countless accolades, they stem from us each contributing unique abilities and perspectives through times stressful, but ultimately rewarding.”

With Pat carrying out key experiments, managing the lab’s money and generously spending countless hours instructing fledgling graduate students and postdocs on her  protocols, Steve said, “I was freed up to concentrate on science, to accept career-building lecture invitations — amassing more than a million miles on USAir — to write papers, consult and most importantly to stay abreast of advances in various areas so our science would remain at the forefront.”

In the process, he racked up a Pfizer Enzyme Award, Gowland Hopkins Award, Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, the Nakanishi Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science, the National Medal of Honor, the National Academy of Science Award in Chemical Sciences and the National Medal of Science, among others. Additionally, Benkovic has been elected a member of the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.  He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

For Steve Benkovic, who at 83 is still actively publishing, none of it would have been possible without Pat, and none of it would have been possible without a willingness to take risks.

“The Benkovic Research Initiative is meant to fund risky but highly innovative research that has the potential for breakthrough discovery,” Benkovic said. “I am well aware of the aversion of NIH and NSF to fund such proposals. We were fortunate enough to have funds to test ideas that would not have been supported by conventional sources, and I want to give other people the opportunity to do things a bit out of the ordinary.”

The couple’s initial gift of $650,000 will directly support preliminary research for four projects chosen from the first round of proposals submitted in fall 2021. The Benkovics have committed to providing additional resources in 2022 to support subsequent stages in the projects that show promise, and they are interested in making the initiative an annual call at Penn State.

“This initiative really reflects Steve’s personality and career, in the sense that it doesn’t operate in the traditional way,” noted Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “This is really a different approach to the standard funding model at Penn State. I think it will show potential donors who are passionate about a specific research topic that we can help them find the best possible teams at Penn State to really push the boundaries in that field, with all those dollars directly applied to the research. It’s a model that we hope others will consider in the future.”

“The Benkovics believe, as do we, that breakthroughs in science happen when exceptional scientists have the freedom and resources to partner across disciplines in new and truly innovative ways,” said Phil Bevilacqua, head of the chemistry department in the Eberly College of Science. “We are thrilled that they have chosen to support our community in this way.”

All four of the projects selected to receive support from the first call of the new initiative hold potential to be translated into commercial therapeutics or technologies–appropriate for a program that was made possible by the highly successful commercialization of Benkovic’s scientific discoveries.

The initial funding recipients and project titles are:

  • "Targeting cryptic viral epitopes for pandemic preparedness and rapid response through integrative cryo-EM and mass spectrometry" — This project proposes an unprecedented integration of Cryo-Electron Microscopy and mass spectometry to empower and accelerate future antiviral discovery. It was proposed byGanesh Anand, associate professor of chemistry, and biochemistry and molecular biology; Susan Hafenstein, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; and Neil Christensen, professor of pathology, and microbiology and immunology.
  • "Development of antibiotic adjuvants to avert resistance conferred by radical S-adenosylmethionine-dependent methyltransferases" — This project aims to address the problem of antibiotic resistance in a novel way that addressed a specific resistance mechanism. It was proposed by Squire J. Booker, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, John Alumasa, associate research professor of chemistry, and Olga Esakova, assistant research professor of chemistry.
  • "Novel methods for non-invasive neuropeptide administration to the brain" — This project aims to overcome technological and biochemical barriers towards precision drug delivery to the brain. It was proposed by Nikki Crowley, assistant professor of biology and biomedical engineering, and Scott Medina, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.
  • "Chemically-enabled anti-antibiotics to prevent or reverse antimicrobial resistance" — This project aims to break the connection between antibiotic use and off-target antibiotic resistance by developing highly effective anti-antibiotic compounds. This is a novel way to address the increasingly alarming and deadly problem of germs like bacteria and fungi developing the ability to defeat the drugs designed to defeat them. It was proposed by Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering.

“I believe these projects exemplify the daring creativity I was hoping for,” said Benkovic. “I look forward to learning how they progress. I hope the science pans out, but I hope at the same time all of the researchers have great fun in trying to do it.”

Support from the Benkovics will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit


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College of Engineering Media Relations

"We were fortunate enough to have funds to test ideas that would not have been supported by conventional sources, and I want to give other people the opportunity to do things a bit out of the ordinary."

—Stephen BenkovicEvan Pugh University Professor and Eberly Chair in Chemistry