Joanna Fowler, senior chemist; director of the Radiotracer Chemistry, Instrumentation, and Biological Imaging Program at Brookhaven National Laboratory; and adjunct faculty member in Stony Brook’s Department of Chemistry, will be awarded the National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony on Wednesday, October 7. She is one of nine researchers named by President Barack Obama to receive the nation’s highest award for lifetime achievement in science.
The National Medal of Science was created by statute in 1959 and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation. The annual award recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. Nominees are selected by a committee of Presidential appointees based on their advanced knowledge in, and contributions to, the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences, as well as chemistry, engineering, computing, and mathematics.
“This award is both humbling and gratifying,” Fowler said. “It recognizes the importance of chemistry and imaging in advancing our knowledge of the human brain, particularly as it is affected by drugs, disease, and aging.”
Fowler has been a major contributor to brain research and the study of diseases such as addiction, which she has studied using an imaging technique called positron emission tomography (PET). In 1976 Fowler and her colleagues synthesized 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), a radiotracer used in PET. Today, FDG is widely used in hospitals and research centers throughout the world to diagnose and study neurological and psychiatric diseases and to diagnose cancer.
In her recent research, Fowler has focused on changes in the brain circuits that are disrupted during drug addiction. Some of her studies included imaging the uptake and movement of cocaine and methamphetamine in the human brain, which shed light on why these drugs are so powerfully addictive. She is also involved in PET studies to understand the action of therapeutic drugs and facilitate the introduction of new drugs into the practice of medicine.
Another research area is centered on variations in monoamine oxidase (MAO) genes and how they affect personality and vulnerability to psychiatric disorders. In earlier research, Fowler discovered that cigarette smokers have reduced levels of MAO, an enzyme that breaks down dopamine, the neurotransmitter that mediates reward, motivation, and movement. This finding may account for the high rate of smoking in individuals who are depressed or addicted to drugs.
Fowler joined BNL in 1969. Her other honors include the Society of Nuclear Medicine’s Paul Aebersold Award and the Department of Energy’s E. O. Lawrence Award, both received in 1997; the American Chemical Society’s Francis P. Garvin-John M. Olin Medal in 1998; and the Glen T. Seaborg Award in 2002. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, and, earlier this year, she was honored with the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences and was inducted into the Long Island Technology Hall of Fame. Fowler holds eight patents for radiolabeling procedures.