Molecular engineering graduates tackle global grand challenges

Filed Under: MolE PhDNews

This past year, in the midst of a global pandemic, nine students in the Molecular Engineering Ph.D. Program (MolE) completed their degrees.

For some MolE students, the COVID-19 pandemic opened new research avenues and applications for their work. Brian Coventry's doctoral research in David Baker's lab focused on the design of minibinders, small de novo proteins that bind target proteins with high affinity and specificity. When COVID-19 hit, Coventry and his colleagues at the Institute for Protein Design quickly pivoted to design minibinders targeting the SARS CoV-2 spike protein, effectively neutralizing the virus. They are now working on advancing the most promising minibinder candidates into clinical testing.

As a graduate student in the labs of David Baker and physics Professor Jens Gundlach, MolE graduate Sinduja Marx explored the creation of customized nanopores for DNA sequencing. Marx further demonstrated how the mechanics of nanopore technology could be leveraged to study the SARS CoV-2 helicase and its inhibition, providing insight into the development of viral inhibitors targeting the helicase.

Engineering new therapeutics and tools to address a novel pandemic is just one of the many ways MolE students and alums are applying the principles of molecular engineering to enable a healthier and more sustainable world.

In fact, several recent graduates are now working to support the translation of their doctoral research into new technologies to treat disease and efficiently manufacture molecules using microbes. MolE alum Dylan Shea studied the structural transitions of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease in Valerie Daggett's bioengineering lab. Shea's research findings are informing the development of early diagnostics and therapeutics for amyloid diseases at the Daggett lab spinout, AltPep, where Shea is a principle scientist.

As a graduate student in James Carothers' chemical engineering lab, David Sparkman-Yager developed a new class of engineered RNA biosensors with increased activation ratios and tunable ligand sensitivities. Based in part on this research, Sparkman-Yager co-founded the startup company Wayfinder Biosciences with MolE graduate and fellow Carothers lab alum Jason Fontana. Together they are developing a biosensor designed to measure the concentration of a desired small-molecule product, a critical bottleneck in engineering microbes for biomanufacturing.

"Despite an exceedingly challenging year, our students have thrived we are thrilled to see the many ways in which they are contributing to the development of new treatments and technologies," said Alshakim Nelson, director of education at the Molecular Engineering & Sciences Institute. "We look forward to hearing about the future accomplishments of this newly minted group of molecular engineering experts."

The following students defended their dissertations (virtually) this past year:

To learn more about our current students, visit: