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Biophysicist in Profile

Patricia O'Hara

Patricia O'Hara

January 2024 // 961

Patricia O’Hara grew up in Long Island, New York, the child of an aeronautical engineer father and a mother who worked in the home, caring for the family’s five children. O’Hara’s father passed away when she was young, and her mother eventually remarried a man with eight children of his own. They had two more children together, making O’Hara the exact middle child in a family with 15 kids. She is the only scientist of the bunch and says she fell in love with science as a child through reading “How and Why” books belonging to her brothers.

She graduated from Adelphi University in 1976 with a bache­lor’s degree in chemistry. From there, she moved to Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree and PhD in Biophysical Chemistry. “Biophysics wasn’t really a field when I started doing it in graduate school, where I worked with a wonderful physical chemist, Richard Bersohn,” she shares. “I was part of a small subgroup of his working on proteins, doing laser-induced FRET [fluorescence resonance energy transfer]. My graduate work using lasers to measure FRET and ESR [electron spin resonance] to measure metal binding site prop­erties ignited my interest in the broad array of nondestructive assays for looking at biological structure and function.”

Upon completion of her PhD, O’Hara undertook a postdoctor­al research assistant position with Steven Boxer at Stanford University. She explains, “At Stanford, I explored the effect of protein environment on chromophore properties in the central exon fragment of hemoglobin. I characterized the binding of chlorophyll to this protein subdomain by ESR, NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance], and CIDNIP [chemically induced dynamic nuclear polarization] and grew crystals for x-ray crystallogra­phy.”

In 1983 she finished her postdoc and started a position at Amherst College as an assistant professor, where she has been since then. “I am the first woman to get tenure in the Physical Sciences at Amherst College, which is a selective liberal arts college and was all male until 1976,” O’Hara remembers. “Being the first woman in an institution that had been all male for 150 years was a challenge, but my experience of having 10 brothers and being by nature very stubborn prepared me well.”

She has been a member of the Biophysical Society for 30 years and found the community especially valuable as an early career scientist. She says, “The Biophysical Society Meetings were a lifeline to me at early stages of my career. It is where I met col­leagues to collaborate with and where my students gave their first scientific talks and posters.”

Employed at a primarily undergraduate institution, O’Hara has worked with many students over the years as they were expe­riencing the joy of research for the first time. “I have mentored 75 undergraduate researchers in their senior honors projects and several hundred non-thesis undergraduates,” she reportss. “Watching students learn to love research is always its own reward.”

The students’ love of research is matched—and enhanced— by her own. O’Hara says, “‘Turning on the Light’, the title of a paper I wrote for the Journal of Chemical Education and my most-downloaded publication, provides a metaphor for what I love in biophysics. I still feel the awe and wonder when the inner workings of molecular machines and biological processes are revealed.”

To young scientists, O’Hara offers this advice: “Find yourself a community that is supportive and welcoming. Be open to getting help and advice from the least likely places.”

These days, she is starting phased retirement, winding down four decades of research and doing more writing in its place. She shares, “My future plans involve writing science books at a level that those without technical training can understand. My first book was The Chemical Story of Olive Oil, and I am currently involved in writing about food chemistry—something that might seem far from biophysics but in reality is not. My textbook, Food Chemistry in Small Bites, will be published by the University of California Press in the near future.”