PSU chemistry professor named 2018 Outstanding Oregon Scientist
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: March 1, 2018

Niles Lehman, a Portland State University chemistry professor whose work in molecular evolution explores the origins of life, has been named this year's Outstanding Oregon Scientist by the Oregon Academy of Science.

Lehman has taught at PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences since 2001 and runs a research lab, which investigates the biochemical and genetic processes that drove the origins of life some 4 billion years ago and may still influence the evolution of organisms today.

"It's one of the greatest unsolved problems in science and a lot of people want to know where they came from all the way down to the actual first beginnings, so I can't believe I get paid to study a beautiful problem," he said.

Lehman said he was honored by the award and hopes it helps raise the profile of Portland State as a place to do research.

Dirk Iwata-Reuyl, chair of the chemistry department, wrote in nominating Lehman that his "breadth and depth of knowledge in chemistry and biology has allowed him to address questions in molecular evolution in a holistic manner that is almost without precedent, and distinguishes his work from that of virtually every other researcher in the field."

Some of Lehman's current work focuses on how prebiotic RNA molecules can assemble themselves from smaller pieces and self-replicate.

"Professor Lehman is simply a superb scientist, a colleague whose scholarship I consider to be of the highest possible caliber, and one for whom recognition with the Outstanding Oregon Scientist Award is well earned," Iwata-Reuyl wrote. "I consider his hire to be the most important hire that the Department of Chemistry has made over the last two decades."

Lehman's research has been supported by funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Templeton Foundation. He was recently elected president of The International Society for the Origins of Life.

Lehman will be honored March 3 during the Oregon Academy of Science's annual meeting at George Fox University. Formed in 1943, the academy provides networking opportunities for scientists and promotes university and pre-college scientific organizations that encourage interest in the sciences, math and engineering.

Past PSU winners of the Outstanding Oregon Scientist award include geologist Scott Burns (2014), geologist Andrew Fountain (2008), chemist Carl Wamser (2002) and physicist Gertrude Rempfer (1998).