Joanna S. Fowler
Joanna S. Fowler, Director of Radiotracer Chemistry, Instrumentation and Biological Imaging Program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, has been a major contributor to brain research and the study of diseases such as addiction using a medical imaging technique called positron emission tomography, or PET. In 1976, Fowler and her colleagues synthesized 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), a radiotracer used in PET. Today, FDG is widely used in hospitals and research centers throughout the world for studying the brain and diagnosing cancer.
Joanna’s current research centers on using PET to study the brain circuits that are disrupted in drug addiction. Some of her early studies include imaging the uptake and movement of cocaine in the human brain, which shed light on why this drug is so powerfully reinforcing and addictive. Also, she has discovered that cigarette smokers have reduced levels of monoamine oxidase (MAO), an enzyme that breaks down dopamine, the neurotransmitter that mediates reward, motivation and movement. This finding may account for a high rate of smoking in individuals who are depressed or addicted to drugs.
Joanna’s recent work is centered on variations in MAO genes and how they affect personality and vulnerability to psychiatric disorders. She is also involved in PET studies to understand the action of therapeutic drugs and facilitate the introduction of new drugs into the practice of medicine. She is a strong proponent of the need to protect and encourage scientific research; to recruit, stimulate and nurture the next generation of scientists, especially chemists; and to create opportunities for team science and translate basic research to problems of major public impact.
After earning a B.A. in chemistry at the University of South Florida (1964) and a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Colorado (1967), Joanna carried out postdoctoral research at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, England) and at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Joanna was hired as an Assistant Scientist at Brookhaven in 1971. At Brookhaven, she became interested in radiotracer chemistry and the application of radiotracers to problems in biology and medicine in the laboratory of Alfred P. Wolf. Since that time, her research has focused on radiotracer development for PET and its application in human neuroscience.
Joanna’s honors include: the Society of Nuclear Medicine’s Paul Aebersold Award in 1997, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) E. O. Lawrence Award in 1997, American Chemical Society’s Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal in 1998 and the Glen T. Seaborg Award in 2002, election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 and the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences, 2009.
Over the course of her distinguished career at Brookhaven Lab, Joanna’s work has been highlighted in Time magazine and cited twice in Discover as one of the top science stories of the year. She has published close to 350 peer-reviewed articles in leading scientific journals and holds eight patents for radiolabeling procedures. Joanna also gives talks to students, community memebers, and scientific professionals about her cutting-edge research.