March 01, 2017

​The Welch Foundation Announces 2017 Norman Hackerman Award Recipients

Houston, TX – March 1, 2017 – The Welch Foundation, one of the nation’s largest sources of private funding for basic research, today announced that Drs. Neal M. Alto and Delia J. Milliron are the 2017 recipients of the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research. Both researchers are being recognized as ‘rising stars,’ having contributed significant scientific discoveries at early stages of their careers. 2017 marks the first time in the 15 years of the Hackerman Award that two recipients have been honored.

“Traditionally, we have chosen only one Hackerman Award recipient per year,” said Charles W. Tate, Director and Chair, The Welch Foundation. “This year, however, we would have been remiss not to seize the opportunity to simultaneously recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of both Drs. Milliron and Alto.”

The discoveries of Drs. Alto and Milliron are as diverse as they are significant. Alto’s work has contributed significantly to the global fight against infectious disease, as microbial infections continue to be the leading cause of human mortality worldwide. Milliron is known as a leader in the field of semiconductor nanocrystals, defining a new research subfield in plasmonic oxide nanocrystals.

As an Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Alto’s research group notably discovered the make up of host-pathogen complexes. Host-pathogen interactions are the way microbes or viruses sustain themselves within host organisms on a molecular, cellular, organismal or population level. This important finding illuminated how pathogens attack human cells, causing disease, which has opened the door for the development of novel antimicrobials.

“Dr. Alto has emerged as an influential leader in the field of microbiology, molecular medicine and infectious diseases,” said Peter B. Dervan, Chair, The Welch Foundation Scientific Advisory Board. “The impact of his research makes him an ideal recipient of the Hackerman Award. The breadth and depth of his work in microbial pathogenesis are exceptional.”

Alto’s studies have been featured in respected publications including Science, Nature, Cell, Molecular Cell and more. Previous awards received by Dr. Alto include the Merck Irving S. Sigal Memorial Award, the Faculty Scholar Award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Simons Foundation, the Biomedical Collaboration Research Award from The Hartwell Foundation and he was designated an Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease by the Burroughs Welcome Fund.

“Following the discovery of several new classes of bacterial enzymes, it came to light that these enzymes alter the structure and function of target host proteins through never-before observed chemical modifications,” said Alto. “Importantly, this work has revealed new drug targets for the treatment of bacterial infectious diseases and has contributed more broadly to the scientific community by providing unique tools for studying basic cellular processes involved in autoinflammation and cancer.”

Dr. Milliron is currently an Associate Professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. After receiving her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, Milliron spent approximately four years as a researcher for IBM. Upon establishing her own lab at UT Austin, her industrial experience helped attract students and postdoctorates from diverse backgrounds including physics, engineering and synthetic chemistry. Her research led to the discovery of a dynamic infrared coating for windows, that can be manipulated through electrical conduction. The new coating has significant potential applications and Dr. Milliron has formed a company, dubbed Heliotrope, to commercialize this window coating and future iterations.

“Delia is responsible for discovering a new family of nanocrystals,” said Dervan. “This, coupled with her ability to transfer fundamental discovery in an academic setting, to real-world applications, all within the span of a few years, has made her a stand-out in the chemical engineering world.”

Milliron is currently an associate editor at one of the American Chemical Society’s most prestigious journals, Nano Letters. Her work has been published in Nano Letters and in various other prominent publications including Nature, Nature Materials, Journal of the American Chemical Society and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Other awards she has received include a Sloan Research Fellowship, the Caltech Resnick Institute Resonate Award, two R&D 100 Awards including one for Universal Smart Windows and a Department of Energy Early Career Award.

“We began studying plasmonic metal oxide nanocrystals because of their potential to resolve the puzzle of how to separately control light and heat entering buildings as the sun shines through our windows,” said Milliron. “As we have learned more, the rich chemistry and physics of these materials suggests additional possible applications in areas as diverse as catalysis and medical imaging.”

The Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research was established by The Welch Foundation to honor Norman Hackerman, its Scientific Advisory Board chair from 1982 to 2006. The award recognizes the accomplishments of chemical scientists in Texas who are early in their careers. It is designed to encourage scientists who are embarking on careers dedicated to increasing our fundamental understanding of chemistry. Upon accepting the award, Drs. Alto and Milliron will each receive $100,000, as well as a stunning crystal sculpture to commemorate the occasion.

The Welch Foundation, based in Houston, is one of America’s largest private funding sources for basic chemical research. Since 1954, the organization has contributed approximately $840 million to the advancement of chemistry through research grants, departmental programs, endowed chairs, and other special projects at educational institutions in Texas.

For more information on the Foundation and a list of previous Hackerman Award recipients, please visit


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