UNM’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology welcomes Dr. Dennis A Dougherty of California Institute of Technology as guest speaker for 13th Annual Riley O. Schaeffer Endowed Lectureship on Friday, Nov. 11 at 4 p.m. in Clark Hall, Lecture Hall 101. A reception takes place in Clark Hall 105, Open Space at 3:15 p.m.

This premier lecture, held by the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, is the first in-person lecture as part of the endowed lectureship series since 2019 due to the pandemic. Established in 2008 in honor of Professor Riley Schaeffer through contributions from UNM faculty, past students of Professor Schaeffer at Indiana University and UNM and friends and external colleagues.


The lecture, “Chemistry on the Brain: Understanding the Nicotine Receptor, will discuss the development of the cation-π interaction, a powerful noncovalent binding interaction that is widely employed in both small molecule and macromolecular recognition in biology and chemistry.

The remarkable complexity of the human brain is evident at all levels, from anatomical to cellular to molecular. The central molecules of synaptic signaling comprise a diverse array of integral membrane proteins that are resistant to most approaches to high-resolution structural characterization. As such, chemistry provides the most powerful tool for unraveling the structures and functions of molecules or memory, thought, and sensory perception of Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia.

Using the mindset and methodologies of physical organic chemistry, and combining them with molecular biology, electrophysiology, and computer modeling, we have probed these complex membrane proteins with precision and subtlety normally associated with small molecule studies and have uncovered key interactions that allow agonists to bind, and that distinguish binding of natural ligands vs. substances of abuse, including a key cation-π interaction that enables tight binding of nicotine to specific regions of the brain.

Dougherty is the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry and the Norman Davidson Leadership Chair in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. His current research is focused on molecular neurobiology, applying the mindset and tools of physical organic chemistry to the complex proteins of neuroscience.

After receiving his B.S. at Bucknell University, he earned his Ph.D. at Princeton with Kurt Mislow, and then did postdoctoral work with Jerome Berson at Yale.

For more information, visit the Schaeffer Endowed Lectureship.