2021 President's Innovator Award
Dr. Suzanne Walker

The 2021 President’s Innovator Award was presented to Dr. Suzanne Walker, Professor of Microbiology at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Walker received a Bachelor of Arts in English literature at the University of Chicago. She completed her Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Princeton University in 1992. She joined the faculty at Princeton as an instructor of chemistry in 1995 and was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2001. Two years later, she became the first woman to attain the rank of full Professor of Chemistry at Princeton. In 2004, Dr. Walker moved from Princeton’s Chemistry Department to the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Harvard Medical School. She is an affiliate of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and a founder and current director of Harvard’s Ph.D. Program in Chemical Biology.

Dr. Walker’s research program is characterized by the creative integration of organic chemistry, enzymology, high throughput screening, structural biology, and genetics to understand biological problems. Glycobiology serves as a unifying theme for her studies and she has played a leading role in elucidating glycosyltransferase structure, function, and inhibition. One major area of focus that was prompted by her interest in antibiotic resistant microorganisms, is to understand bacterial cell envelope assembly and how its components function together to enable the survival of pathogenic bacteria. She developed novel chemical approaches to generate synthetic substrates for natural cell wall precursors in order to study the steps of peptidoglycan and teichoic acid biosynthesis. For example, she developed the first synthetic routes to Lipid I and Lipid II, key building blocks of peptidoglycan. Together, these tools led the way to mechanistic studies on the glycosyltransferases involved in cell wall biosynthesis. She has also used these enzymes to assemble polymeric substrates from Lipid II, enabling studies of the downstream enzymes that assemble the mature cell wall. She is an expert on antibiotic mechanism of action and her group has pioneered approaches to discover and characterize new antibiotic targets and compounds.

Her structural work on a bacterial glycosyltransferase required to make the disaccharide building block of peptidoglycan paved the way for her studies on a eukaryotic glycosyltransferase that used a common substrate. A second major research area focuses on understanding human O-GlcNAc transferase (OGT), an essential glycosyltransferase that modulates signaling pathways linked to nutrient sensing and glucose metabolism. She has carried out foundational structural and biochemical studies on OGT. Dr. Walker’s lab has developed cell permeable inhibitors to probe OGT biology, defined the catalytic mechanisms of OGT, elucidated determinants for substrate recognition, and identified noncatalytic functions of OGT in the cell. These fundamental discoveries provide a foundation for dissecting OGT’s critical cellular functions.

The quality of Dr. Walker’s research is of the highest caliber and the impact of her work has received many accolades. Dr. Walker is a member of the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. She serves as an associate editor for the Journal of the American Chemical Society. She is also the recipient of a number of distinguished awards and honors, including an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, the Emil Thomas Kaiser Award in Protein Chemistry, an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, the Andrew Braisted Lectureship Award in Chemical Biology, and the American Chemical Society Chemical Biology Lectureship Award.

For her seminal contributions to glycoscience and her creative application of chemical strategies to address fundamental questions related to human health and disease, Dr. Suzanne Walker has been awarded the President’s Innovator Award from the Society for Glycobiology.