A non-engineer’s journey into molecular engineering

Filed Under: BiotechMolE PhDNews

February 22, 2022

Ayumi Pottenger is a 3rd year molecular engineering Ph.D. student advised by Patrick Stayton, a UW professor of bioengineering and director of the MolES Institute. We recently spoke with Pottenger about her research and her experience in the Molecular Engineering (MolE) Ph.D. program.

What brought you to the Molecular Engineering Program at UW?

I got my undergraduate degree in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona where I was studying the use of ketamine to treat levodopa-induced dyskinesia, a severe side effect of Parkinson’s disease treatments. I knew that in graduate school I wanted to pivot to studying infectious diseases and apply what I had learned in my undergraduate studies to build better platforms and technologies. By chance, I met my PI Pat Stayton at my UW campus visit. He told me about a new drug delivery system his lab was developing to treat malaria. It combined everything I love: biology, chemistry and infectious disease research. I knew then that UW was where I wanted to be.

Ayumi making a polymer.

What was it like entering an engineering program from a non-engineering background?

I had not originally planned on applying to any engineering programs, if I’m being honest. In fact, “engineering” was kind of a scary word to me. But I felt like in order to build better platforms and technologies, I was going to need some engineering experience. The MolE program encourages students without engineering backgrounds to apply so I decided to go for it. To my surprise, I got in!

Initially there was a lot to learn, but my professors were always willing to meet with me and help me with whatever I didn’t understand. The key was asking for help. I also leaned on other students in my cohort – molecular engineering draws on so many disciplines that each of us is knowledgeable in slightly different areas, and as a result we often helped each other learn.

Tell us about your research.

I am working on the development of polymeric prodrugs – drugs designed to remain inactive until they reach their target tissue – to treat malaria.

My work focuses on the parasite Plasmodium vivax, or P.vivax, one of five species that can cause malaria in humans. P.vivax is unique in that it can lie dormant in the liver for weeks, months or even years before reactivating to cause another episode of malaria. Although p.vivax is not the deadliest of all of the malaria species, it does cause widespread disease. Our goal is to develop treatments specifically for the dormant liver stage parasite, also known as a hypnozoite.

Ayumi in the lab.

The standard treatment for hypnozoites is a drug called primaquine (PQ) which patients must take daily for 14 days. This long regimen often has poor patient compliance. However, a new drug called Tafenoquine (TQ) was recently approved and unlike PQ, it only has to be taken once. The issue with both PQ and TQ is that for people with G6PD enzyme deficiency – one of the most common enzyme deficiencies in the world, affecting roughly 400 million people – these drugs can cause hemolytic anemia, a disorder in which red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be made.

Therefore, patients must be tested for G6PD deficiency before they can be treated, which is especially difficult to do in resource-poor regions. The polymeric prodrugs we are developing would deliver TQ directly to its target tissue (the liver) thus avoiding induction of hemolytic anemia in G6PD-deficient patients.

Do you know what you want to pursue after graduate school?

Currently, my goal is to go work at US AMRIID, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease. They have a number of awesome labs working on treatments for things like malaria, all the way to hemorrhagic fever and hantavirus. I think it would be a great opportunity to build on the work I am doing now and expand my expertise in infectious diseases.

Tell us about your blog, “A Tale of 2 PhDs”.

Phuong Nguyen (also a 3rd year MolE PhD student) and I started this blog in March of 2020 to document our journey through grad school. We post about everything from tips for picking rotations and lessons from taking our preliminary exams to selfcare and racism in academia. We also have some posts targeted at undergrads interested in pursuing grad school such as how to choose a grad school and questions to ask during grad school interviews. Writing for the blog has been a great outlet and a nice way to force us to reflect. If we help another student or two along the way, even better!

Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, you and a number of other MolE students helped launch a DEI committee for the MolE program. What are the goals of that committee?

We have three main goals: increasing program accessibility, providing inclusive mentorship opportunities and educating members of our community on issues of inequity in STEM.

We’ve organized a number of different activities over the past year to advance those goals. Last fall we held a virtual event, “STEM Grad School 101,” to help prospective students, especially those from HBCUs and local community colleges, learn how to apply and what to expect in grad school. We also piloted a faculty-student mentorship program to help connect MolE students with faculty members outside of their committee that can offer advice on navigating grad school. We started a book club (open to all MolES students and faculty) to learn and discuss difficult topics without putting the burden of teaching on students and faculty from underrepresented groups. We recently finished “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington, which is an eye-opening description of the history of medical experimentation on Black people in America.

I’m proud to be part of a program that values diversity of lived-experiences and backgrounds, recognizing how they lead to better science and the thoughtful application of that science.

Has graduate school been what you expected?

Well, given that I started in the fall of 2019, the majority of my time as a graduate student has been during the pandemic. I certainly was not expecting that! The pandemic made my first year especially challenging between quarantine and virtual classes, but I think that it was such a trying time for everyone that people were also really understanding and accommodating. It was, however, an interesting time to be an infectious disease researcher, as our lab pivoted to apply our polymeric prodrug design to COVID treatments.

More broadly, I love that as a graduate student I get to set my own schedule and have the freedom to direct my projects. I was caught a little off guard by the responsibility that comes with deciding how to spend my time, because if I fail to plan correctly that’s on me. It’s the first instance in which I’ve really had the ability to choose how I spend my time.

Overall, I’m having a lot more fun in graduate school than I thought I would. It’s been the most challenging, but exciting and enjoyable time I’ve ever had in school.