Montana State University

MSU chemistry professor named fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

November 24, 2015 -- Amanda Eggert for the MSU News Service

Bern Kohler, a Montana State University professor who is known for his groundbreaking research as well as his dedication to students, has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Members are elected in recognition of their contributions to innovation, education and scientific leadership. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Bern Kohler, a Montana State University professor who is known for his groundbreaking research as well as his dedication to students, has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS.

According to the organization, Kohler is being recognized for “distinguished contributions to the field of condensed-phase, experimental physical chemistry, particularly for advancing understanding of excited electronic states of DNA using femtosecond laser spectroscopy.”

Each year, the AAAS, which is the world’s largest general scientific society and the publisher of the journal Science, elects fellows in recognition of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. Kohler is the only professor from a university in Montana to be elected a fellow this year.

“It’s a well-deserved recognition of Professor Kohler’s status as a scientist,” said Nicol Rae, dean of the MSU College of Letters and Science. “He’s an outstanding researcher whose work is recognized nationally and internationally.”

Kohler, who has been teaching in MSU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry since 2009, said he’s honored by the recognition.

For nearly three decades, Kohler has been making contributions to the fields of ultrafast photophysics and photochemistry of molecules. Most recently, Kohler has been researching the effect of ultraviolet (UV) radiation on DNA.

“My students and I study in great detail everything that happens when DNA absorbs a UV photon,” Kohler said.

He said that when DNA absorbs UV rays it goes into what’s called an excited state, a highly reactive state that can damage DNA.

Understanding in detail how DNA damage occurs requires sophisticated equipment. Kohler uses femtosecond lasers to directly observe chemical events in real time, using a time scale – “a millionth of a billionth of a second” – that is difficult to imagine, but necessary for understanding the photochemistry of molecules.

The implications of Kohler’s research are both profound and practical: UV damage to DNA leads to skin cancer, the most widespread cancer in North America.

Kohler has a thoughtful, scholarly approach that he applies to important applications, according to Mary Cloninger, professor and head of the MSU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He also shares his work nationally and internationally and has given more than 75 invited talks in the past decade.

In addition, Kohler has developed a reputation for engaging and challenging students; earlier this year, he received MSU’s Cox Family Award for Creative Scholarship and Teaching.

“I think his training of his students is impeccable,” Cloninger said. “He really pays attention to each individual student and what they need.

“In his intro classes he’s known for his goofy chemistry jokes, but he really makes an effort to make a difference,” she added. “At the upper level he really makes (graduate students) think much more deeply and challenges them.”

Kohler said his roles as researcher and teacher are inseparable and enrich one another. 

“Science is not a bunch of ideas in a book – it’s giving people the skills to go out and make new discoveries,” Kohler said. “I can’t teach a course without conveying some of the excitement related to that discovery mission.”

The AAAS will honor its new fellows at an induction ceremony set for Feb. 13 in Washington, D.C.

Contact: Bern Kohler, (406) 994-7931 or kohler@chemistry.montana.edu

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