Charles McKenna, professor of chemistry and vice dean for natural sciences in USC Dornsife, has been named a Chevalier, or Knight, in the Ordre des Palmes Académiques (Order of Academic Palms) by the prime minister of France.
Consul General of France Axel Cruau presented the award on behalf of the French government to McKenna at a ceremony at the Résidence de France in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Sept. 26.
Considered one of France’s oldest and most prestigious civic honors, the Ordre des Palmes Académiques is a French order of chivalry. Established by French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte in 1808, it recognizes those who have contributed significantly to the development of relationships with France in culture, science or education. McKenna was nominated for the award by the French prime minister.
During the ceremony, Cruau cited McKenna’s accomplishments as a scientist and the successful partnerships he has developed between researchers in the United States and France for his recognition.
In particular, McKenna spearheaded a collaboration with researchers from USC Dornsife, the Institut de Biologie Structurale Jean-Pierre Ebel (IBS) and the Institut Albert Bonniot, both located in Grenoble, France. Their partnerships bring together scientists, including many student researchers, from both countries with the goal of developing new drugs to treat cancer, infectious viruses and for other potential medical purposes. In 2010, McKenna’s collaboration was awarded a Partner University Fund (PUF) grant, which supports innovative and sustainable partnerships between French and U.S. research institutions.
“By collaborating with French scientists and by working in close collaboration with the Office for Science and Technology of the Embassy of France in the United States, Charles McKenna has created and strengthened French-American connections, and more importantly friendship between our two countries,” Cruau said.
Cruau noted that McKenna, who earned a B.A. in French literature from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego in chemistry, and is fluent in French, has forged additional connections between American and French researchers. McKenna oversaw workshops for young French scientists in Los Angeles in 2009. He also spoke at the 2010 French-American Biotechnology Symposium held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., on new therapeutic and vaccine approaches in infectious diseases.
Incoming USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay spoke at the ceremony.
“We are delighted to honor the recognition of our good friend and colleague Charles McKenna,” Kay said during the ceremony in French. “His achievements in research, teaching and international collaboration exemplify our commitment to faculty excellence at USC Dornsife. We also look forward to strengthening our ties with our French colleagues in many different fields of inquiry.”
Others affiliated with USC Dornsife who attended included Executive Vice Provost Michael Quick, professor of biological sciences; chemistry department professor and chair Chi Mak; Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute Director G.K. Surya Prakash, the George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry and professor of chemistry; and head of molecular and computational biology Myron Goodman, professor of biological sciences and chemistry.
McKenna said he was delighted to receive the honor, especially in the presence of many of his colleagues and friends.
“It was very gratifying to receive this recognition of my scientific work,” McKenna said. “But of course that’s also recognition of my various students and colleagues who have contributed to that work. At the same time, because I’ve had a longstanding interest in strengthening international scientific exchanges and collaborations in general, and involving France in particular, it is a recognition that I welcome.”
McKenna, who was chair of the Department of Chemistry from 2008 to 2011 and holds a joint appointment in the USC School of Pharmacy, has focused his research on bioorganic and medicinal chemistry. His laboratory is currently investigating ways to develop new, more effective drugs to treat infectious viral diseases as well as developing anti-cancer and biological imaging agents, and new approaches to study DNA repair. He is also interested in the mechanism of nitrogen fixation, a phenomenon crucial for world food supplies. He has more than 200 publications and patents as well as over 370 invited or contributed scholarly presentations.
After earning his Ph.D., McKenna was a National Institutes of Health Fellow at Harvard University and is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Other awards include the USC General Education Distinguished Service Teaching Award, USC Associates Award For Excellence in Teaching, USC Provost’s Prize for Teaching with Technology, USC Mellon Award, and the USC Raubenheimer Outstanding Faculty Award.
During the Ordre des Palmes Académiques ceremony, speaking in French, McKenna noted advice from renowned XIXth century chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur.
“Live in the serene peace of the laboratory,” McKenna said quoting Pasteur. “To the serene peace of the scientists at work we should add these words, which form the motto of the French Republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité. ‘Liberty,’ by which I mean freedom of thought and expression — which is indispensable for the scientific endeavor. And then ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity,’ which unite together student with professor in their passionate and ever renewed pursuit of discovery.”