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  May 1, 2000

Frank Adding Pieces to Molecular Puzzle

Harry Frank is literally a colorful guy. His internationally recognized research proves it.

For several years, the chemistry professor has been examining the roles of carotenoid molecules - compounds that give fruits, vegetables and leaves their orange and yellow colors and are also considered factors in reducing the risk of certain diseases, including skin cancer.

"One important role of carotenoids is that of protector," says Frank, who is president-elect of the International Society on Carotenoids. "The manner in which they serve as protectors of plants may also have relevance in human health," he says. "In humans, carotenoids act as biological antioxidants to delay or even prevent the onset of certain kinds of cancer, atherosclerosis or a blockage of arteries, cataracts, macular degeneration and also stroke."

Frank, who is celebrating his 20th anniversary this year on the UConn faculty, has advised nearly a dozen graduate students in the specific area of research on carotenoid molecules.

That research has garnered international attention and, closer to home, earned him the 1999-2000 UConn Alumni Association's Faculty Excellence in Research Award.

Frank has been teaching a course in general chemistry to some 200 undergraduates a semester for nearly a decade, but he says the graduate level course in biological chemistry provides him the greatest excitement of discovery.

"My interest is the overlap between biology, physics and chemistry," he says. "At the graduate level, we're able to bring all of these topics together. The motivation comes from trying to fit pieces of knowledge from experiments into the overall puzzle and find a solution to the problem.

"We've fit a few major pieces into the puzzle of how these molecules work into the grand scheme and that's been very rewarding."

Frank considers research and teaching intertwined. "When you're in the lab doing research with students, you may be teaching them, but they are also teaching you."

Trust, he says, is a big issue: "I have to trust that the experimental results the students obtain are done correctly, and they have to trust that I'll direct them properly and give guidance and instruction at the highest level."

His graduate students value that good working relationship.

"Harry is a supportive adviser," says James Bautista, a graduate student from the Philippines. "He trusts what you do and gives you independence."

Bautista, who will complete his studies this summer, says Frank has been a source of inspiration.

"I've published a number of papers with him," says Bautista. "He inspires me to produce and I have reached my immediate goals because of him."

In April, Frank and his graduate students presented five papers at the Eastern Regional Photosynthesis conference meeting at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

The trip was a short journey compared to other presentation sites during the academic year that include Israel, Turkey, Australia and California.

"My job at the university involves not only teaching and research, but travel to present our work at scientific conferences," says Frank. "Professors working in both academia and industry are interested in our field of study."

The experiments and work being carried out in Frank's lab are funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Connecticut Research Foundation. During the 1999-2000 academic year, his research has been supported at a level close to the half million dollar mark.

"It's been a good year," says Frank.

A native of Memphis, Frank received a bachelor of science degree from Memphis State University and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Boston University. He then did postdoctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley's Chemical Biodynamics Laboratory, where he worked under the direction of Nobel laureate Melvin Calvin for three years, before joining UConn as an assistant professor.

His career includes many honors. He was a Fulbright Scholar in 1994-1995; recipient in 1987 of the American Chemical Society Connecticut Valley Section Award; and a postdoctoral fellow of the National Institutes of Health from 1978-1980. This past year he was honored with election to the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.

He also has been named chairman-elect of the Gordon Research Conference on Carotenoids. The conference will be held in 2004 in California.

Claudia Chamberlain