The Daily Gamecock

Obama honors USC research professor

Outten wins presidential award for scientists, engineers

This year, one of USC's own assistant professors was named among the 85 recipients of this prestigious award to be honored in Washington, D.C., for their scientific contributions to the improvement of society.

Caryn Outten, an assistant professor and researcher in the department of chemistry and biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, was nominated by the National Institute of Health, one of the 11 national agencies involved in the PECASE program, for her studies of oxidative stress in the cell and the protective mechanisms of the mitochondria. This research, which Outten began working on when she arrived at USC five years ago, is a continuation of her post-doctorate interests at Johns Hopkins University and involves monitoring the redox processes in baker's yeast cells, simple eukaryotes similar to human cells.

According to Outten, studying how the cell handles oxidative stress is important to understanding conditions such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and even aging.

"We're trying to understand what happens in normal cells under normal conditions because there are some fundamental questions about redox reactions in the cell that haven't been answered yet," Outten said. "If we can understand the way things should work and then take a disease where the process is disrupted, then we can understand how to fix it."

Outten's research was federally funded by the NIH and depended greatly on the work of both her graduate and undergraduate team assistants. She said Jingjing Hu, a May 2010 chemistry graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, has been especially helpful throughout the process.

So far, Outten has published eight papers on her research and presented her results at scientific meetings in the U.S. and at conferences in Germany, Italy and Japan. As a professional scientist working to obtain research grants in a struggling economy, as well as a professor, wife and mother of two, Outten said she never imagined that her unpredictable career in research would take her this far.

"You can never plan how research goes; we just ask questions, use whatever technique works and run with it," Outten said. "The best part of this career is looking at a problem that no one else has looked at before and trying to solve it in a certain way. It's a cool feeling to know you've answered this question that people have been wondering about for a while."

For all students who might be interested in getting involved in research, Outten recommends looking for opportunities with advisers as early as the undergraduate years. She said learning the techniques for troubleshooting, exercising common sense outside the classroom setting and having persistence and good judgment are fundamental for eventually producing successful work.

"It can be really frustrating at times, but once you get funded and start getting good results and publish a few good papers, it really makes up for the slumps," Outten said. "You just can't get scared."

In two weeks, Outten will travel to Washington, D.C., with her family for the award ceremony and a photo op at the White House, where President Barack Obama may make an appearance to congratulate the scientists. While greatly looking forward to the award and the achievement that it signifies, Outten is equally excited simply at the opportunity to take her husband and children (5-year-old Bryce and 3-year-old Lyla) with her to Washington.

"I've never seen the White House before, and it will be all decorated for Christmas," Outten said with a smile. "It'll definitely be fun."