Brookhaven Lab Grants Scientist Emeritus Status to Retired Chemist Joanna S. Fowler


Brookhaven chemist Joanna S. Fowler, who retired from the Biosciences Department on January 3, 2014, has been named a Scientist Emeritus in recognition of her noteworthy contributions to Brookhaven National Laboratory’s reputation as a world-class scientific institution.

Fowler joined Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1969 as a research associate in the Chemistry Department, where she helped to build and eventually led the Radiotracer Chemistry, Instrumentation and Biological Imaging group. Her research over 40+ years has led to a wide expanse of new and fundamental knowledge and the development of important scientific tools in the area of neuromedicine, diagnostics, and health. 

Fowler spent the majority of her career developing radiotracers for brain imaging to understand the mechanisms underlying drug addiction. Her work to develop methods to understand the relationship between genes, brain chemistry, and behavior has been recognized by scientists in the international arena. Under her leadership, Brookhaven built a world-renowned translational neuroimaging program with a multidisciplinary team of scientists to investigate mechanisms and assess treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders.

Significant Research Accomplishments

In 1976, Fowler and colleagues designed and synthesized fluorine-18 labeled fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), a radiotracer now widely used to study brain function and diagnose and plan treatment for cancer. She also developed methods to rapidly incorporate a radioactive isotope of carbon, C-11, into organic compounds for visualizing biochemical transformations and the movement of drugs in living systems, including humans, using PET (positron emission tomography, a medical imaging technique). These studies showed that cocaine’s distribution and movement in the human brain parallels its effects on behavior.


Another major accomplishment by Fowler was the development of the first radiotracers to map monoamine oxidase (MAO), a brain enzyme that regulates the levels of other nerve-cell communication chemicals and one of the major enzymes involved in neurotransmitter regulation in the brain and peripheral organs. Using these radiotracers, Fowler discovered that smokers have reduced levels of MAO in their brains and lungs. This may account for some of the behavioral and epidemiological features of smoking, such as the high rate of smoking in individuals with depression and drug addiction, and has led to many studies on the relationship between reduced MAO and smoking addiction. 

Most recently, Fowler and her research team responded to a new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) mission to develop new tracers in the field of bioenergy research, and have been instrumental in labeling auxin, a key signaling molecule in plant growth and development. These studies could point the way to new strategies for increasing plant biomass and improve the production of biofuels.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists

Being an excellent scientist and recognized leader in her field wasn’t enough for Fowler. She has also been an advocate for many young researchers – sharing her knowledge, mentoring, and inspiring many new scientists.  She has also been a strong advocate for diversity in the workplace, serving as a prominent role model, particularly for young women, and a positive force in trying to eliminate situations in the workplace that might drive women and other groups out of science or discourage them before they even get started. She was recently featured in DOE’s Women in Energy series.

“Joanna was the heart and soul of Brookhaven’s imaging group,” said Gene-Jack Wang, who worked side-by-side with Fowler at Brookhaven for many years. “But she is not only a super chemist and brilliant neuroscientist, she is also a great mentor. She passionately provides guidance to students helping them cultivate their scientific careers. As an emeritus chemist, I know she will continue to be a great contributor to Brookhaven and the field of imaging science.”

Said Fowler, “I am proud of my work at Brookhaven which I truly believe makes a difference to people and society. Mostly, I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with so many extraordinary colleagues, who have also become my friends. I plan to continue doing research in this important field and providing support and encouragement to current and future scientists. We should never underestimate the impression that a happy, successful scientist working in a respectful and supportive institution makes on a young person who is trying to decide on whether to embark on a career in science.” 

After earning a B.A. in chemistry from the University of South Florida in 1964 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Colorado in 1967, Fowler performed postdoctoral research at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England. 

Fowler has received many awards for her contributions to science, including the DOE’s E. O. Lawrence Award in Life Sciences in 1999, and the Glenn T. Seaborg Award for Nuclear Chemistry from the American Chemical Society in 2002.  She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 and received their prestigious Award in Chemical Sciences in 2009.  Also in 2009, Fowler received National Medal of Science which was presented to her by President Obama at a White House ceremony.

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