Assistant Professor of Physics Rae Anderson, PhD, was recently awarded a generous grant through the Air Force Office of Scientific research. Her project is titled, "Elucidating the molecular dynamics, conformations, and interactions occurring in complex entangled biopolymer systems via novel single-molecule techniques." In case you missed that, we asked Dr. Anderson to break it down and explain how her research could lead to innovative defense technology—think "bio-bulletproofing."
Tell us about your project. Can you describe the "novel single-molecule techniques" that you plan to use?
I am studying the dynamics of and interaction forces between DNA molecules in complex networks of many strands with different lengths and topologies. To do so I am using a novel single-molecule technique that combines fluorescence microscopy, which allows me to actually observe a single DNA molecule as it moves around. I'm also using optical tweezers, a technique that uses tightly focused laser beams to form traps that I can use to hold two ends of a DNA molecule and measure the force exerted on a "trapped" molecule as I bump it up against other molecules. Combining these techniques allows me to relate the interaction forces between DNA molecules to the deformations and movements of the individual molecules.
These complex DNA systems exhibit very interesting and useful fluid and material properties, which are highly relevant to bioengineering and biological cell function. Dissecting and characterizing these properties on a single-molecule level will provide much-needed insight to a range of disciplines.
How much funding did you receive? When will you begin your research and what do you hope to accomplish?
I will receive $400,000 over three years. We have already begun this research and are currently preparing to publish our first round of results. We hope to thoroughly characterize the relationship between intermolecular forces and deformations in these complex DNA networks over a wide range of molecular lengths, topologies and concentrations. Our findings will aid in the development of novel, multifunctional biomaterials, as well as provide insight into the intermolecular interactions in the nucleus of cells.
The Air Force is interested in supporting research from a multitude of scientific disciplines. Of the 48 awardees, about how many would you say are conducting biophysics research? How can biophysics research support national security efforts?
Not many. Most of the research is engineering-based. My research can aid in the development of multifunctional, biomimetic materials, which can be used in a variety of ways to support national security efforts. For example, one unique property of the DNA networks I study is that they behave as a fluid when subject to a slowly applied or small force but become rigid and solid like when a strong force is applied very quickly. This property could be used to develop the next generation of lightweight and adaptable bulletproof clothing and materials. But to be able to harness the beauty of this unique property and tune it to fit specific parameters, we need to understand the molecular mechanisms that give rise to these properties—which is what I am doing.
You were one of the original faculty designers of the new Biophysics major. How is the program going? What are your thoughts on the future of the program?
The program is going extremely well. We already have ten declared majors, and many more students are interested. I am extremely excited to continue to develop and grow this program and the initial interest has only bolstered this excitement. My hope is to develop several new interdisciplinary courses (with the help of my colleagues in the other science departments) to introduce into the program in the coming years. I also think the program will increase the interdisciplinary research efforts among the science departments and offer more opportunities for students to partake in this exciting and fruitful form of research. The program continues to build momentum and I foresee a strong and exciting future for the program and the students that move through it.
What is your advice to students who aspire to become research scientists?
Students should definitely take advantage of any opportunity to do research as an undergraduate. It's an invaluable experience, which will teach them so much more than they can get just from classes. My undergraduate research experience is what convinced me that I wanted to teach and do research for a living. Also, they should be curious and interested and ask questions! And don't give up. There are always setbacks and unexpected results in research but working through these setbacks and unlocking the reason behind the unexpected results is really where the beauty of research lies.
- Anne Malinoski ‘11