[Currents header

January 6, 1997

Local high school teacher and UCSC grad publishes chemistry research

A quick scan of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, a leading journal for original research in chemistry, reveals reams of papers by teams of scientists at universities and industries. Rare is the paper written by just one person, and rarer still is that author from a high school. Yet both of those things happened in the issue of September 11, 1996, when Santa Cruz High School chemistry teacher Dave Ptak published his study on the stability of a special kind of protein.

The two-page paper, titled "Effects of Electrostatic Anisotropy on the Properties of de Novo 4-Alpha-Helix Bundles" is not exactly coffee-table reading. Indeed, it is the fruition of several years' worth of serious theoretical research by Ptak, done in the spare time he managed to carve from his hectic schedule. The study proposes a model for why a particular class of synthetic protein isn't as stable as chemists think it should be. Ptak's model explains why the proteins might vibrate in a distinctive way and predicts how chemists might be able to construct more sturdy versions of them.

Ptak got the idea for his paper while taking classes for a master's degree in chemistry, which he earned from UCSC in 1992. After finishing his courses he opted to return to Santa Cruz High School, where he has taught since 1986. His degree did allow him to take on part-time teaching duties in chemistry at Cabrillo College and Monterey Peninsula College. Along the way, his interests in theoretical chemistry research have continued unabated.

"It's like a passion for me," Ptak says. "I'm a member of both the American Chemical Society and the Protein Society, and I read a lot of research journals. There's also a tremendous amount of information available on the World Wide Web and at UCSC's Science Library."

Although his published work is too technical for his students to tackle, Ptak created a special unit on proteins that he will teach as part of a new Advanced Placement chemistry course at the high school in spring 1997.

Ptak found the journal's publication process rigorous but rewarding. The most tangible result: He's gotten requests for more information from chemists across the U.S. and from countries such as France, Spain, and Lithuania.

--Robert Irion

Return to the Currents home page.

Go to UCSC's home page.