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Oration honouring Dr. Pamela Bjorkman

In the 1960s, two radio astronomers were perplexed by a bothersome noise that disturbed their studies of the cosmos. After several failed attempts to find the source of the buzz and the hiss they finally contacted another researcher who speculated that what these two astronomers were hearing was not a mechanical problem but likely the last whispers of the Big Bang.

At the same time these men were pondering the origins and vastness of the universe, Pamela Björkman was looking into a microscope in a junior high school chemistry class, being amazed at what would become her consuming passion: the structure of another universe, one within us, the microscopic spaces of cellular biology.

Pamela Björkman’s family history spans oceans and continents. Her father’s parents came to the United States from Sweden. Her mother is one of ours, born and raised in Grand Bank, and her maternal grandfather served in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War. Her parents met in Greenland: her father stationed there during the Korean War and her mother working at the American airbase. The couple eventually settled in Oregon where Pamela Björkman was born and first looked into that world of microscopic creatures.

After completing a bachelor of science in chemistry at the University of Oregon, she went onto a stellar PhD in biochemistry at Harvard; she continued her research as a postgraduate, and eventually established her own research facility as a tenured professor at the California Institute of Technology.

In 1993 Pamela Björkman was awarded the Cancer Research Institute’s William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research and the following year she was given the Gairdner Foundation International Award for contributions to medical science. Receiving the Gairdner Award is seen by many as a precursor to the Noble Prize. In 1999 she was named the Max Delbruck Professor of Biology at Caltech. She is currently a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, a member of the US National Academy of Science, and the recipient of the 2006 L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award for North America. This summer the National Institutes of Health recognized Professor Bjorkman’s research with a multi-million dollar grant.

You may be wondering, Mr. Chancellor, what exactly Professor Björkman does with her team of energetic and brilliant researchers: what does she look for in the worlds of human molecular biochemistry? She studies the structure of proteins, or as others have described it, she deciphers the language of proteins. The specific proteins she studies are ones that are involved in the human immune system – and this is no mean feat. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of proteins working in human biology – all of them incredibly complex structures and each one vital to the maintenance of healthy and happy human beings.

Professor Björkman has discerned the structure of proteins that are directly involved in vital immune system responses related to cancer, organ transplant rejection and HIV/AIDS. Her research is remarkable for advancing our understanding of how proteins work and she is remarkable for her dedication to knowledge that is directly relevant to human health.

Equally important, Professor Björkman is also celebrated and honoured for exceptional creativity and pioneering uses of technology in understanding those structures. Her innovative use of x-ray crystallography – which uses light and colour to determine shape and structure – has given scientists new insights into the dimensions and arrangement of these proteins. Her current research is dedicated not just to studying protein structures but to designing new proteins that will viciously attach the HIV/AIDS virus. With her discoveries, we are beginning to see the three dimensional, colour-coded workings of microscopic elements of the human biological universe.

It has been said that if you gaze long enough upon the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the entire universe shall unfold before you. The unflagging research of Professor Björkman has painted a spectacularly coloured canvas of the human cellular universe. She is, Mr. Chancellor, a poet of proteins, a Michelangelo of molecules.

For her imagination and innovation in science and for her profound recognition that science is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is also beaut y and art, Mr. Chancellor, I present for the degree of doctor of science, honoris causa, Pamela Jane Björkman.

Dr. Danine Farquharson
University orator