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Butler Alison

Dr. Alison Butler

Distinguished Professor
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of California, Santa Barbara




What year did you graduate from UCSD and with whom did you work while at UCSD?

I graduated from UCSD in April 1982.  I worked primarily in Professor Robert Linck’s lab (Physical Inorganic Chemistry), and after he left UCSD, I finished up in Professor Teddy Traylor’s lab (Organic Chemistry).

What are your major scientific accomplishments since graduating from UCSD? Which accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

Breaking open the field of Marine Bioinorganic Chemistry in some small way.  The transition metal ion composition of the ocean is starkly different from any terrestrial environment. Because organisms evolved against the chemical constraints of their environment, we surmised that the marine environment would be a rich source of new metalloenzymes and bioinorganic chemistry.  We demonstrated the vanadium haloperoxidases in marine algae catalyze bromocyclization of terpenes to produce halogenated marine natural projects. We also discovered new classes of siderophores (chelating molecules produced by bacteria to sequester iron) produced by marine bacteria and the attendant photoreactivity of some of these iron-siderophore complexes.

What advice would you give current/graduating UCSD students?

Be adventurous, deliberately seek challenges outside your comfort zone, don’t pay (much) attention to what you think others think of you – follow your instincts, and if you find yourself in a lab or workplace that isn’t wildly interesting to you, don’t be afraid to make a change.

Greatest memory from your time at UCSD?

UCSD is such a special place. I have so many great memories. The Traylor lab was famous for its beach parties and jalapeno-eating contests (Teddy always won).  Certain seminars in the Urey Room (in Urey Hall) are etched in my mind – particularly one given by Brian Hoffman (Northwestern University) explaining ENDOR spectroscopy – but also the Organic seminar series in which the Organic faculty sat in the front row and grilled the seminar speaker  – I’m glad I got over being afraid of John Faulkner because he became a terrific collaborator, years later.  However, Charlie Perrin’s detailed and critical reading of my thesis tops the list and was very welcome at the time since my main thesis advisor was not at UCSD.

What drew you into your current field of research?

Two things, actually.  I took a Bioinorganic Course offered by Professor Joseph Kraut, although actually it was mostly taught by a postdoc in his group, Tom Poulos (now, Chancellor’s Professor at UC Irvine in Biochemistry).  Around that time, I also read an article in the New Yorker Magazine about a disease in poultry related to a lack of molybdenum.  I knew without a doubt that I was interested in the fields of metallobiochemistry and bioinorganic chemistry, and this prompted my postdoctoral fellowships with Joan Valentine at UCLA and Harry Gray at Caltech.  I also had a good friend in graduate school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Margo Haygood, and I was fascinated by her work.  Years later, we began a tremendous collaboration that has lasted over 25 years, combining her expertise in marine microbes and mine in bioinorganic chemistry.

What recent major awards have you received?

From the American Chemical Society, I have received the ACS Alfred Bader Award, a Cope Scholar Award, and I am an ACS Fellow.  From the Royal Society of Chemistry, I received the Inorganic Reaction Mechanisms Award.  Perhaps most interesting, from the spectrum of the members’ accomplishments is election as Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Perhaps most daunting is being selected as the 2020 UCSB Faculty Research Lecturer, UCSB’s highest honor given annually by the Academic Senate faculty to one faculty member in recognition of extraordinary achievements in research and scholarly work.

How have you seen the field of chemistry change during the course of your career?

It’s not so much the field of chemistry that has changed, as it is that chemists have adopted a much more interdisciplinary focus, and discoveries at the overlap with other fields can be wildly exciting.