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.

Vincent Conticello in Chemistry World

Emory Professor of Chemistry Vincent Conticello was quoted in Chemistry World discussing protein materials:

“the development of silks has several significant challenges including high hydrophobicity, low solubility and limited functionality for post-processing modification. In contrast, the coiled-coil materials described here can be maintained in a soluble state and undergo a conformational conversion to β-sheets under surprisingly mild conditions. The resultant fibres can be drawn and cross-linked using standard methodologies to afford highly stable and mechanically robust materials”.

Read the full article at Chemistry World.

Bill Wuest Receives 2017 ACS Infectious Diseases Young Investigator Award

Bill WuestBill Wuest has been named one of three recipients of the 2017 ACS Infectious Disease Young Investigator Award given by ACS Infectious Diseases and the ACS Division of Biological Chemistry.  Winners received a plaque, an award of $1,000, and up to $500 in travel reimbursement to attend the 2017 ACS Fall National Meeting in Washington, D.C., and present at an ACS Division of Biological Chemistry symposium in their honor. In addition, they were honored at the ACS Infectious Diseases Young Investigator Awards Symposium during the meeting.

Brooke Howell interviewed Dr. Wuest regarding the honor.

What’s next in your research?

With my group’s recent move to Emory University, I felt that this would be an ideal time to expand our research focus beyond bacterial biofilms and look into other areas antibacterial research. More specifically, we are looking to expand our “narrow-spectrum” research program with a focus on Pseudomonad-specific therapies in collaboration with the CF-Atlanta group. Likewise, we also plan to work closely with the Antibiotic Resistance Center here at Emory to further investigate mechanisms of antibiotic resistance development by both using our current, and continuing to develop, chemical probes.

Read the full article in the ACS Axial.

Lynn Group Featured in Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry

Research from the research group of Dr. David Lynn is featured on the cover of the latest issue of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry. OBC is a weekly journal for the publication of highly significant original research and reviews in all areas of organic chemistry, including organic synthesis, physical organic chemistry, supramolecular chemistry and bioorganic chemistry.

The cover art is related to the article “Amyloid scaffolds as alternative chlorosomes” contained in the issue. Recent graduate Rolando Rengifo is first author with Noel Li, Anthony Sementilli, and David G. Lynn as additional authors.

Congratulations, Lynn Group!

Ian Pavelich Awarded ARCS Fellowship

Ian Pavelich
Ian Pavelich

Ian Pavelich (Dunham Group) has been awarded an Advancing Science in America or ARCS Fellowship. The ARCS Foundation advances science and technology in the United States by providing financial awards to academically outstanding U.S. citizens studying to complete degrees in science, engineering and medical research. The awards are focused on helping researchers at the startup or “seed stage” of their work and discovery.

Ian’s project is titled “Molecular mechanisms of antibiotic tolerance.” “The project focuses on identifying the molecular mechanism for how pathogenic bacteria confer an antibiotic tolerance phenotype or behavior without the requirement for genetic mutations,” says Ian. “Currently, we’re attempting to identify how different stresses, like classes of antibiotics, activate different enzymes that trigger antibiotic tolerance.” The research has potential implications for the future of public health: “As modern medicine would be impossible without the use of antibiotics, further investigating these novel systems as potential new antimicrobial strategies is incredibly important.”

The ARCS Award is an unrestricted $7,500 award given directly to the scientist and may be renewed for up to three years. When asked how the ARCS Award will affect his work, Ian says: “I think that ARCS will provide a layer of flexibility in how we choose to answer the questions targeted by my research. I am extremely grateful that the ARCS committee granted me these funds, and with them I aim to expand the scope of my studies using more interdisciplinary approaches. I also plan to use funds to attend a range of diverse conferences.”

Outside the lab, Ian has been involved in outreach at Emory, working on a chemistry event during the annual Science Olympiad for area high school students that focused on fundamental gas laws and their quantitative uses. Ian’s ties to Emory go beyond chemistry, too. This month, his partner will be joining the Political Science Department graduate program at Emory: “we’ll be doing our PhDs side by side!”

Congratulations, Ian!

Wuest Group Featured in ChemBioChem

Research from the Wuest Group is featured on the cover of the August issue of ChemBioChem. The article is “Efflux Pumps Might Not Be the Major Drivers of QAC Resistance in Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus.”

The inside cover picture shows that
cell-membrane composition might be
the primary driver of bacterial resistance to quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs). Our findings shed light on this daunting phenomenon with world-wide impact as QACs are ubiquitous in household cleaners and typically serve as the last line of defense in home sanitation.

Graduate Student Spotlight: Yang Liu Develops a New Method for Chemistry with “Roots” in Biology

Yang Liu in the lab. Photo provided by Yang Liu.
Yang Liu in the lab. Photo provided by Yang Liu.

Yang Liu (Salaita Group) is bringing new techniques to the emerging field of mechanobiology; at the same time, he’s returning to his roots.

Literally. As in, plants.

Yang’s father is an academic biologist studying agriculture in China.

“I think in the beginning, my dad really wanted me to be a biologist,” says Yang. “But normally kids don’t want to pursue the same career path as their parents.”

As an undergraduate in China, Yang started out studying mechanical engineering. Then, he attended a general chemistry lecture with a famous chemistry professor who made a convincing case for the importance of the discipline. “He said, ‘chemistry is the central science connecting physical sciences, life sciences and applied sciences all together,’’ says Yang. “And I was so fascinated by it. And I changed my major.”

At Emory, Yang joined the lab of Khalid Salaita. His research in the Salaita Group takes a novel approach to a common scientific question: how does the immune system recognizes and eliminates “invaders”, such as pathogens or cancer cells? Most research explores how chemical signals mediate this process. Yang’s work expands on existing work in the Salaita Group that focuses on mechanical signaling—the way that immune cells physically probe their targets within the body. “Cells can touch and apply forces to one another,” explains Yang, a process he refers to as a “handshake.” Yang’s research develops tools that allow scientists to “see” these kinds of physical interactions.

Gold nanoparticle (yellow) with elastic spring molecules (gray) bound to a fluorophore and ligand (black). When a ligand binds to a membrane receptor (cyan), the spring “pulls” and the fluorophore elicits a signal (bright white).
Gold nanoparticle (yellow) with elastic spring molecules (gray) bound to a fluorophore and ligand (black). When a ligand binds to a membrane receptor (cyan), the spring “pulls” and the fluorophore elicits a signal (bright white). Photo provided by Yang Liu.

Specifically, Yang has developed a technique named molecular tension fluorescence microscopy (MTFM) that employs single elastic molecules—DNA, protein, and polymer— as sensors to visualize membrane receptor mediated forces at the piconewton level. “One piconewton is the weight of one trillionth of an apple and surprisingly, pN forces regulate biochemical signaling pathways,” says Yang. These forces are too small for scientists to measure using conventional methods. Existing tools aren’t sensitive enough or they are inefficient.

“Until our method kicks in,” says Yang.

Yang has combined nanotechnology and the “easy” surface chemistry of gold nanoparticles to make MTFM probes more effective. “These gold particle sensors are spring scales at nanoscale ,” says Yang. “Compared to previous techniques, these probes are of significantly enhanced sensitivity, stability and amenable for detecting forces mediated by almost all kinds of cell receptors.”

The improvements have caught the attention of researchers in other Emory units—and even nationally and internationally. Yang has collaborated with the Evavold Lab in the Department of Immunology at Emory to help them measure mechanical forces mediated by different immune cells. He also has collaborators from as far away as New York and Germany.

Regarding these collaborations, Yang says: “The need to be trained [to use this method] is very high. The method is not hard, it’s easy. So people usually spend a few days and they should be able to master it…and we still maintain quite tight collaboration. We not only teach them how to make it, we actually get involved in the scientific questions they care about and continue this collaboration.”

Recently, Yang’s success in developing the new method was recognized with the department’s highest graduate student honor, the Quayle Outstanding Student Award. Speaking of Yang’s progress shortly after the award ceremony, advisor Khalid Salaita praised Yang’s work ethic as well as his science: “Yang was a real pleasure to have in the lab. He was incredibly thoughtful, well read, and intensely motivated. More than anyone else I’ve worked with, Yang displayed a keen instinct for experimental design. He spent countless hours in the dark microscope room collecting data and working around the clock fueled up with his favorite bbq Pringles and excited by the science.”

The award ceremony was followed swiftly by another milestone—a successful PhD defense. Next, Yang is headed to John’s Hopkins University where he will work in the lab of Dr. Taekjip Ha, a world leader in the development of single molecule fluorescence microscopy and force spectroscopy.

Salaita Group "Logo"
Salaita Group Logo

Yang’s pioneering research wasn’t always smooth sailing. “I didn’t get my first experiment done until the first semester of my third year. Everything before that didn’t work.” He credits his perseverance to his father’s example—“agriculture is even slower, waiting for the growth of plants. You can only do two experiments a year!”—as well as his own scientific curiosity. His advisor, Khalid Salaita, was also an inspiration throughout the process. “He is always passionate and ignited my love for science. You love it and you work hard to make something meaningful to the society and also make yourself valuable, so, that’s what I’d like to do and that’s because of these two people.”

Does all this mean that Yang has overcome his initial reluctance to follow in his father’s footsteps towards biology?

“I think I’m going back to the route, mining chemistry, biology. In the beginning I was against it, but I do like it.” Still, chemistry has his heart. “Chemists not only create new tools, new theories and new materials, but also create new opportunities. And if you want to study biology as a chemist, there are some advantages too because you can understand and explore the secret of life at the molecular level.”

Weinert Group in Nature Communications

Clip from the image RsbR haem pocket model and haem spectra." This image, and the article referenced, are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Clip from the image RsbR haem pocket model and haem spectra.” This image, and the article referenced, are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The Weinert Group has research featured in the June issue of Nature Communications. The paper, “An O2-sensing stressosome from a Gram-negative bacterium,” is co-authored by Xin Jia, Jian-bo Wang, Shannon Rivera, Duc Duong, and Emily E. Weinert.

Abstract:

Bacteria have evolved numerous pathways to sense and respond to changing environmental conditions, including, within Gram-positive bacteria, the stressosome complex that regulates transcription of general stress response genes. However, the signalling molecules recognized by Gram-positive stressosomes have yet to be identified, hindering our understanding of the signal transduction mechanism within the complex. Furthermore, an analogous pathway has yet to be described in Gram-negative bacteria. Here we characterize a putative stressosome from the Gram-negative bacterium Vibrio brasiliensis. The sensor protein RsbR binds haem and exhibits ligand-dependent control of the stressosome complex activity. Oxygen binding to the haem decreases activity, while ferrous RsbR results in increased activity, suggesting that the V. brasiliensis stressosome may be activated when the bacterium enters anaerobic growth conditions. The findings provide a model system for investigating ligand-dependent signalling within stressosome complexes, as well as insights into potential pathways controlled by oxygen-dependent signalling within Vibrio species.

[Full Article]

Meet the New Graduate Class: Ian Pavelich

Ian Pavelich
Ian Pavelich

Ian Pavelich comes to Emory from the Milwaukee School of Engineering—“it was an extremely difficult four years, but it left me a focused engineer with a unique skill set.” In Milwaukee, Ian also had the opportunity to participate in both educational and scientific research, preparing him to hit the ground running at Emory. Ian identified Emory as his top school early in the application process and felt at home after coming to visit Atlanta. He joined the Emory community this summer, doing research in the Salaita Lab.

“Just to show the dedication I had to moving my life to Atlanta, I drove for 14 straight hours with the help of my partner to manage the move-in just days after I graduated. On top of the 14 hours, I also finished the move-in and unpacked everything once my parents showed up with all the food needed to refuel!”

Division of Interest: Biomolecular

What Ian is Most Looking Forward to at Emory: “Everything! Taking specialized classes, learning to teach, and performing impactful research are all exciting prospects. Furthermore, I’m looking forward to being a part of LGS and the Emory community.”

Meet the New Graduate Class: Ha An Nguyen

 

Ha An Nguyen
Ha An Nguyen

Ha An Nguyen comes to Emory from the University of Richmond. Originally, she intended to study engineering in college, but sitting in on a philosophy class during a campus visit convinced her that she would benefit from a liberal arts education. Beyond Emory’s liberal arts mission, Ha An was drawn to Emory because of our research strengths and our close-knit community. She says: “I would like to do exciting, interdisciplinary research that will let me learn and master various laboratory techniques and gain a deep understanding of the chemistry behind a cellular process.”

Division of Interest: Biomolecular

What makes Ha An Unique: I was born in India and grew up in Turkey, Vietnam and Pakistan. And I really, really love food!

What Ha An is Most Looking Forward to at Emory: Everything!