Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Jose Soria Named “Emory Williams Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award” Winner

As Senior Lecturer for the Department of Chemistry, Dr. Jose Soria has taught lectures and laboratories ranging from introductory 100-level courses to 400-level advanced courses. His sees the classroom as a space for scientific discussion and the sharing of ideas, an approach which has been well-received by his students and undergraduate TAs. Dr. Soria’s dedication to his student’s and unique teaching style were recently recognized with the Emory Williams Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. The award is given in recognition of a record of excellence in teaching, contributions to curriculum development in the awardee’s academic discipline, and pedagogical innovation.

As a young child growing up in Mexico, Dr. Soria was curious about science. He recalls playing with fireworks and doing “experiments” with his neighbors during his grade school years before he even knew what chemistry was. In middle school chemistry courses, he was fascinated by the changing structures and properties of compounds. After taking his first laboratory class, he was totally captivated.

Dr. Soria earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in chemistry from Universidad Nactional Atonoma before moving to the United States to pursue is doctorate degree here at Emory University. Following graduation, Dr. Soria opted to apply for his green card, allowing him to stay at Emory to complete a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Dennis Liotta. During this time, he became interested in teaching. He took a part-time position at a local two-year college where he could teach classes in the evenings. His experiences in the classroom lead him to apply for more permanent teaching positions, ultimately landing him back at Emory as a member of chemistry’s lecture-track faculty.

His classroom now is based primarily on free-flowing discussions. “When I go into the classroom, I have a plan of what we are going to discuss, but the way that it is discussed is not planned. It is not rehearsed because each community, each group, is different,” says Dr. Soria. He values creating a space that encourages students to speak up about their ideas, ask their questions, and grow as scientists together. Reflecting on an early experience during his teaching career, Dr. Soria explains that a group of minority students approached him and expressed their appreciation for the way he explained his research. That interaction influenced the way he continues to structures his class, with a focus on making the complex concepts more approachable through discussion and application.

Dr. Soria’s willingness to mentor also resonates with his students. “I think the thing that really stands out to me about Dr. Soria’s teaching style is his dedication to mentoring his students. When I told him I was going to be applying for grad schools, he asked to meet up with me so that we could talk about the process, what I should look for in a school, what questions I should ask, and what kinds of programs would be the best fit for me,” says recent chemistry graduate Daniel Salgueiro (EC’18, Blakey Group). “All in all, Dr. Soria is a very supportive and helpful professor, and I recommend all of his classes to anyone who asks me.”

Dr. Soria’s most recent undergraduate TAs, Eddy Ortega (EC’18, Liebeskind Group) and Nilang Shah (EC’18, Levin Group) also have wonderfully positive things to say about his teaching. “Dr. Soria values the environment of his class, the spirit of discussion, and teamwork,” says Eddy. “He loves pushing students to achieve their full potential and promotes students to give concise and well thought answers,” added Nilang.

Dr. Soria remembers seeing a colleague win the Williams Award twelve years ago and thinking “I want to be like him”. He worked hard to build his credentials since then, developing the courses that are now so greatly appreciated by his students. Support for his ideas from chemistry chairs—five in his career, so far!—and collaboration with other faculty and staff have also contributed to his development. The supportive community has helped Dr. Soria during his ongoing project of building a supportive, and now award-winning, classroom.


Faculty Spotlight: Antonio Brathwaite Teaches Chemistry and Confidence

Dr. Antonio Brathwaite, Photo Credit: Jessica Lily Photography

In 2005, Antonio Brathwaite relocated from the South Caribbean to South Carolina, where he attended the College of Charleston on a full athletic scholarship. Shortly thereafter, he transferred to Erskine College where he donned a maroon #15 jersey for their men’s soccer team. While he undoubtedly knew his way around the soccer field, choosing a field of study proved to be a much greater challenge. At the time, Dr. Brathwaite was planning on pursuing his degree in physics, but he struggled to find himself truly excited by the coursework. After briefly considering sociology as a major, he decided to switch to chemistry, a decision which proved to be the right one after his first sophomore chemistry class.

While at Erskine College, Dr. Brathwaite conducted undergraduate summer research in the lab of Dr. Michael Duncan at the University of Georgia. He developed a deeper interest in chemistry as well as a rapport with Dr. Duncan. Dr. Duncan would go on to invite Dr. Brathwaite to join his lab as a graduate student, an offer which he graciously accepted.

Upon earning his doctorate degree, Dr. Brathwaite and his wife traveled to the United States Virgin Islands, where he worked as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). After three years, Dr. Brathwaite returned to Atlanta to join the Emory Department of Chemistry as a Senior Lecturer.

“I am passionate about empowering and inspiring students to find their purpose in life and develop the courage to walk in that purpose,” says Dr. Brathwaite. “My goal is to use chemistry as a platform to help students develop and refine the skills that they will need to realize their fullest potential.” This commitment to student success and empowerment was incredibly apparent to Dr. Tracy McGill, fellow undergraduate professor and chair of Dr. Brathwaite’s hiring committee. “From my initial introduction to Dr. Brathwaite through his application materials, he stood out as an engaged, creative scholar who is focused on the student experience and success,” says Dr. McGill. “He thinks deeply about teaching scientific practices with engaging, ‘real-world’ applications.”

Currently, Dr. Brathwaite teaches physical chemistry labs to junior and senior undergraduate students. While the material for this course can be a bit daunting, Dr. Brathwaite maintains a good rapport with the students by practicing an inclusive and transparent teaching style. “I make it my duty to be as open with my students as possible. It is a lot easier to convince someone about the quantum mechanical explanation for chemical bonds if you have a bond with them,” he says.

This creative, student-centered approach is appreciated by both students and colleagues. “During his first few months in our department, he has shown that he is devoted to supporting our amazing group of chemistry majors through a rigorous lab experience, but also by advising and mentoring,” says Dr. McGill. “His insights and ideas for creating a diverse and engaging experience for students at all levels in the department has already made the chemistry community stronger.  His approachability, sense of humor, creativity, and unwavering commitment to the holistic undergraduate experience is inspiring.”

In addition to being accessible and relatable, Dr. Brathwaite is also fully invested in each of his students and attempts to instill them each with a sense of confidence, an attribute that many students find invaluable in reaching their educational and professional goals. “My most special moments as a teacher are centered around the success of my students,” says Dr. Brathwaite. “I like having the ability to positively affect the lives of the next generation of scientists and leaders.”

One teaching moment that stands out to Dr. Brathwaite as being particularly special was witnessing the graduation of his first research student at UVI, Jean Devera. “Jean was a freshman student in my first general chemistry class at UVI. Within the first few weeks of class, I realized he was a special student and asked him to do research with me,” says Dr. Brathwaite. “Jean graduated summa cum laude and is currently enrolled at Boston University School of Medicine.” Dr. Brathwaite aims to inspire and empower students, and moments of success like Jean’s motivate him and serve as a reminder of the impact he can have.

Just as he continues to be an avid soccer enthusiast even after his time on the field has become more infrequent, he remains similarly enthusiastic about seeing his students go on to reach their fullest potential even beyond his mentorship. He takes pride in his role in helping students become the scientists, professionals, and people they are meant to be. “I am looking forward to sharing in the successes of my students at Emory,” he says.

Faculty Spotlight: Jen Heemstra Explores the Chemistry of Nature and the Nature of Failure

In many instances, scientific insights come not just from flipping through our rolodex of knowledge from past successes, but also from the equally common—though sometimes less documented— failures. We become much more effective and efficient researchers if we use our own experiences, good and bad, to guide us to the answers.

Dr. Jen Heemstra

The concept of using past experiences and mistakes therein to move in the direction of success is mirrored in nature, where biology samples genetic variation to select for organisms that are the most well-equipped for survival. This theme in science, of addressing the known in the context of the unknown, is evident in the lab of Dr. Jen Heemstra, one of the newest professors to the Department of Chemistry. “Biomolecules have these fascinating properties that have been generated by evolution over billions of years, making them especially privileged for recognition and self-assembly,” says Dr. Heemstra. “We get really excited thinking about how we can take advantage of these properties to invent new technologies that address unmet needs in medicine or the environment.”

This passion for discovery led Dr. Heemstra to focus her research efforts on supramolecular chemistry, specifically on understanding the forces that drive interactions between nucleic acids, proteins, and small molecules. Her lab then seeks to apply this understanding towards the development of new technologies. In utilizing biomolecular recognition and self-assembly to generate functional architectures for biosensing and bioimaging, her lab uses nature to inspire innovation. As part of this process, Dr. Heemstra refuses to let the unknown or unfamiliar discourage curiosity and progress. With this mentality, her lab is uninhibited by the potential for failure and instead views failure as an essential part of development and discovery. With one glance at her lab website, it is immediately clear how much Dr. Heemstra appreciates failure, even listing “Embracing Failure” as one of the core values of her group.

Having recently received several awards including the Cottrell Scholar Award, the NSF CAREER Award, and the W.W Epstein Outstanding Educator Award, it is hard to imagine that Dr. Heemstra is all that familiar with the concept of failure. However, when asked about how failure has shaped her professional path, Dr. Heemstra said that her fear of failure nearly held her back from pursuing a career in academia. “I second-guessed myself so much about going into this job. When you fail in academia, you fail in this horribly public way, and that was just terrifying to me,” Dr. Heemstra said. When she realized that this fear was holding her back, she decided that she would not let what other people might think of her rob her of the opportunity to follow her passion and pursue this job that she knew she would love.

Cover of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” written by Dr. Carol Dweck.

She largely credits her ability to face and overcome failure to the concepts outlined in Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The author differentiates between two extremes of how people view their abilities. People with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are defined and unmalleable, while people with a growth mindset believe that their abilities can develop and evolve through hard work. With the growth mindset, individuals are not deterred by a fear of failure and instead view challenges and failures as opportunities to learn and improve. As a result, these individuals are more likely to take risks and find success.

Dr. Heemstra applies this mindset to her own life. On her blog, she writes, “Over the past couple of years, I’ve been inspired to re-think failure, and have bought into the idea that we actually need to teach students (and ourselves) how to embrace short-term failure as a key step on the path to success.” She writes about the relationship between mediocrity and failure, and asks the reader to consider whether “a life of never really trying” is better than “aiming for greatness and occasionally missing”. She goes on to say, “My goal for myself is to de-stigmatize failure, instead viewing it as an inevitable encounter on the road to success, and far preferable to mediocrity”.

Having experienced the benefits of adopting the growth mindset in her own life, Dr. Heemstra gave a seminar to the incoming chemistry graduate class entitled “The Power of Embracing Failure.” “Our natural psychology pulls us back into that fixed mindset of self-doubt,” says Dr. Heemstra. The hope is that, by adopting a growth mindset, students will:

1. Identify failure as a natural and necessary part of the learning process

2. Embrace and overcome failure by adjusting the way they view their abilities

3. Be better prepared to manage failure in the future.

The message of how to embrace failure was well-received by chemistry’s incoming class. First-year chemistry graduate student Evelyn Kimbrough, says, “Professor Jennifer Heemstra’s talk, ‘The Power of Embracing Failure,’ has inspired me, and many other students, to lose the shame and embarrassment associated with failing. Now as I’m starting my graduate school experience I feel more prepared to handle the pitfalls I will encounter and I’m excited to try things I’ve never done before.”

“In research, we go into each day knowing that most of our experiments will fail or fall short of the ideal outcome,” says Dr. Heemstra, “You have to be willing to fail to make progress and to do the big, impactful things.” By viewing failure as a stepping stone on the path to success instead of a course-altering roadblock, we allow ourselves to grow and develop as scientists. When we embrace our failures, we can be free from inhibition by fear or hesitation and can better take on challenges that we might have otherwise deemed too difficult.

Interested in learning more about the growth mindset and embracing failure? Check out Dr. Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and Astro Teller’s TED talk, The Unexpected Benefits of Celebrating Failure.

Don’t let a fear of failure hold you back! Apply to our graduate program! Deadline for applications is January 1st.

Faculty Spotlight: The Department of Chemistry Welcomes Bill Wuest

Bill WuestThe Department of Chemistry at Emory University is pleased to welcome Bill Wuest to our faculty beginning in June 2017. Dr. Wuest joins Emory from Temple University where he was Daniel Swern Early Career Professor of Chemistry. At Emory, he will be the first Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) Distinguished Investigator in Emory College of Arts and Sciences. He will be joined at Emory by six graduate students–Erika Csatary, Colleen Keohane, Kelly Morrison, Sean Rossiter, Amy Solinski, Andrew Steele–and postdoc Sara Zahim.

Bill was born in Centereach, NY in 1981. He received his B.S. magna cum laude in Chemistry/Business from the University of Notre Dame in 2003. As an undergraduate, he investigated intramolecular hydroamination reactions under the tutelage of Professor Paul Helquist. Bill then moved to Philadelphia, PA to begin his graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania working with Professor Amos B. Smith, III. His graduate work focused on both the total synthesis of peloruside A and the development of Anion Relay Chemistry (ARC) culminating with a Ph.D. in 2008. Bill then traveled to Harvard Medical School as a Ruth Kirschstein-NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Professor Christopher T. Walsh, where he investigated unusual enzymatic transformations in the construction of non-ribosomal peptide natural products.

In July of 2011, Bill began his independent career as an Assistant Professor at Temple University. His research focuses on the development of chemical tools to better understand bacteria with a specific focus on anti-virulence targets and narrow-spectrum therapeutics. He is also a member of the Molecular Therapeutics Division of Fox Chase Cancer Center and the Scientific Founder of NovaLyse BioSolutions, which seeks to commercialize the QAC technology developed in collaboration with the Minbiole Group at Villanova University. Bill is the recipient of a number of awards including the NIH ESI Maximizing Investigators Research Award (MIRA), NSF CAREER Award, the Young Investigator Award from the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University, the New Investigator Award from the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation, the Thieme Journal of Chemistry Award, and the Italia-Eire Foundation Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award from the College of Science and Technology at Temple University.

Bill is an avid sports fan, with allegiances to the NY Yankees, NY Giants, and his alma mater, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Outside the lab he enjoys spending time with his wife, Liesl, and son, Max.

Faculty Spotlight: Khalid Salaita

Khalid Salaita. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography.
Khalid Salaita. Photo by Jessica Lily Photography.

Last spring, Assistant Professor Khalid Salaita‘s lab was awarded a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Science (part of the NIH) to study the Notch signaling pathway and develop techniques to look at the forces applied at the interface of cell membranes. Originally named for its role in the formation of notched Drosophila wings, the Notch receptor play a crucial role in cell to cell communication, cell development and differentiation.  Mutations in this transmembrane protein result in dysfunction of the entire pathway, which can lead to various types of cancers including T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL).  Because Notch is so crucial in cell differentiation, having too much or too little present in the membrane can also cause tumor growth.

Notch’s ligand-binding domain exists outside the cell membrane and when it locates a ligand molecule on the surface of an adjacent cell they bind, and the signal pathway begins.  Once the ligand is bound, a protease comes in and snips off the extracellular domain from the transmembrane domain.  However, the site that gets cut is buried within the folded protein, suggesting there must be a conformational change to allow access to the site.  The Salaita Lab hypothesizes this conformational change occurs via a mechanical force; the cell pulling back on Notch, exposing the cleavage site.  Their lab is working on tagging ligands with chromophores and quenchers so they can use fluorescence to see the protein stretching as it is being pulled by the cell. By calibrating the fluorescence of a given chromophore/quencher pair to the amount of force being applied to stretch them apart, they can quantitatively look at mechanical force exerted by the cell.

The Notch receptor with a green fluorescent protein tag on the intracellular domain is overexpressed in mammalian cells and seeded onto a membrane surface functionalized with the ligand (DLL4-mCherry). The two proteins bind and the extracellular domain gets snipped, the domain inside the cell can then be cut and act as a transcription factor, starting the signaling pathway. (Fig. 1)

By labeling the ligand and Notch with fluorescence tags they can not only establish that the two are binding based on the overlap (Fig 2), but by studying the intensity of the fluorescence, they can determine the density of molecules at the interface and their binding stoichiometry.

Unlike other membrane proteins that have been more heavily studied, only parts of the Notch structure are known by either NMR or X-ray crystallography, which makes it even more difficult to work with.  The Salaita lab is up for the challenge though: “Having a five year grant allows you to take a breath and really dive in to solving some hard problems,” said Salaita.

Notch receptor mechanotransduction could be just the tip of the iceberg, there could be thousands of other receptors where a similar mechanism could be in play.  Developing the methodology to explore these forces will open up new avenues for understanding and ultimately controlling membrane proteins and the diseases to which they contribute.

Faculty Spotlight: Chris Scarborough

Faculty Spotlight: Emily Weinert

Q: What made you decide to major in chemistry?

EW: My dad’s a physicist. I grew up spending time thinking about `here’s the natural world, what’s going on’ kind of questions-so I love science. And I just really like the molecular level understanding, trying to really understand. In college, I loved organic chemistry because once you understand what’s happening, it can be predictive. I love being able to do the experiments, have a prediction, go in test it and ask “Does that make sense?”.

Q: What made you transition to biomolecular chemistry?

EW: I’ve always really been interested in living systems and trying to sort out what’s happening in these complex systems. I had always hoped to get to the part in my Ph.D. (working with quinone methides) where we’d learned enough to go in vivo and test some of our theories. But like so often happens in science, sometimes you find that you really don’t understand things that well or you get drawn in different paths-so I wanted to do something more biological after focusing on small molecules.

Q: Did you ever want to be anything else?

EW: Actually, when I was growing up I wanted to be a wildlife biologist.

Q: Really?

EW: Yeah, live out in the wild and count the wolves and watch their migration patterns… But then I realized I didn’t really like the cold that much and living out in a tent with things that could eat me makes me a little nervous so I ran for the lab instead. I think it worked out a lot better.

Q: And you have, like, you know…plumbing

EW: Yeah, (laughs) that was another thing.

Q: What research does your lab focus on?

EW: My lab does protein chemistry. We’re interested in understanding how proteins work, thinking about them as complex chemical systems rather than as the normal circles and pac-men that we often see.

The two general interests in the lab are heme proteins and nucleotide signaling. We have some proteins that are heme proteins and some proteins that are involved in nucleotide signaling and at the intersection are a group of proteins that have both heme domains and do nucleotide chemistry. We’re looking at cyclic nucleotide signaling in bacteria and some potentially new cyclic nucleotides that are involved in pathways in mammals.

We’re also interested in heme proteins and how protein scaffolds tune the electronics and the reactivity of the heme itself. A lot of heme proteins use protoporphyrin IX, although there are some other porphyrins, but you can take protoporphyrin IX and do chemistry with oxygen, like peroxidases and P450 enzymes. And you can also use the same porphyrin to do reversible ligand binding for oxygen delivery or for sensing. So organisms can actually sense gases, binding very low concentrations of ligand so that it causes a downstream change in the organism.

Q: And this variation in activity is dependent on the protein structure?

EW: Yes, the scaffold itself. So you can change the redox potential widely from around -400 mV to around 380 mV. That’s a huge change. You can change the type of reaction; you can change if you can do electron transfer with most of the biologically available oxidants and reductants. And so it can changes just about everything. And right now, our understanding of that is still pretty poor. There’s a huge amount of work that’s been done on the globins. I think there are probably at least 150 mutants of myoglobin that have been published, but it’s still not very predictive and we can’t always apply it to other heme proteins. So, like most protein engineering or protein chemistry, we don’t have a lot of predictive power to suggest how mutations will affect the heme.

Q: Which chemist do you wish you had an opportunity to meet?

EW: Rosalind Franklin and Hans Fischer.

Q: Why them?

Rosalind Franklin has a fascinating story. The work she was doing was still in a time when it was not necessarily expected that many women did their own science. She was clearly brilliant and she figured out most of the structure of DNA before Watson and Crick. The reason Watson and Crick got the structure was by looking at her data. Unfortunately she died before the Nobel Prize was given and they don’t give it posthumously. I think she would be fascinating to talk to and to hear her story.

Hans Fischer was the first to discover chlorophyll and heme and he was the first one to figure out what these pigments were and to synthesize them. I think it’s really interesting to think of how do you go about, at the time (the 1920’s), saying `I’m going to isolate this colored compound’ and then how do you go about with the techniques then available figuring out what all is in there? I think it would be really interesting to hear how the field got started from the guy that started the field!