Victor Ma Selected to Participate in the 2018 CAS SciFinder® Future Leaders Program

Victor Pui-Yan Ma, a rising 5th year graduate student in the lab of Dr. Salaita, has been chosen to participate in the 2018 CAS SciFinder® Future Leaders Program.

According to their website, “The CAS SciFinder Future Leaders program aims to expand professional networks among emerging researchers, increase knowledge and exchange ideas about the role of information within the research process, and share lessons from industry and academic leaders about the role of science in the global economy, academia and the media.”

Selected from hundreds of applicants, Victor will join 30 other outstanding Ph.D. students and postdocs from around the world during a visit to the CAS headquarters in Columbus, Ohio in August. During their visit, the researchers will collaborate on new initiatives to shape the future of scientific information and innovation.

Congratulations, Victor!

To read the full announcement, click [here]!

Victor Ma Receives Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award

Victor Ma, a fourth-year graduate student in the lab of Dr. Khalid Salaita, was recently selected as one of twenty-six Predoctoroal to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award Fellows from the National Institute of Health. This award will provide Victor with two years of funding to complete his doctoral thesis and an additional four years of funding for future postdoc training. In the Salaita lab, with co-mentorship by Dr. Brian Evavold, Victor’s research focuses on developing technologies to study mechanobiology at the molecular scale. With an ultimate goal of establishing an alternative mechanism for regulating T cell activity, he studies the roles of mechanical forces in T cell activation, whether these forces are coordinately controlled by mechano-sensitive proteins, and the importance of these forces for T cell biological function. The findings from these studies can provide insight into a potential strategy for developing effective immunotherapies.

In his postdoc, Victor plans on transitioning into the field of tumor immunology, where he hopes to capitalize on his skillset to elucidate the physical mechanisms responsible for preventing T cells from interacting with tumor cells. “My ultimate career goal is to become an independent investigator at a research-intensive university, where I can assume teaching duties and direct a research lab that combines knowledge from various disciplines to innovate career research,” says Victor. “This award will surely serve as a stepping stone to help achieve my goal!”

Congratulations, Victor!

Congratulations, Dr. Kyle Giesler!

On Friday, October 20th, Kyle Giesler successfully defended his thesis, “The Design, Synthesis, and Evaluation of Novel LipidProdrugs for Nucleoside Analogues.” Kyle’s thesis committee included his thesis advisor, Dr. Dennis Liotta, and members Dr. Khalid Salaita and Dr. Frank McDonald.

During his time at Emory, Kyle designed a novel prodrug strategy for tenofovir and other antiviral nucleosides that “unlocks” their therapeutic potential and significantly rivals well-accepted conjugation strategies used in the clinic. His research contributed to 8 publications and a patent application. In addition, Kyle initiated a collaboration between Emory and Morehouse School of Medicine, developed analogs for the treatment of chronic viral infections and cancer, and was awarded the Graduate Diversity Fellowship awarded to outstanding graduate students showing academic excellence and “exceptional promise as future leaders in their fields”.

Looking forward, Kyle plans to pursue a post-doctoral position at U.C Berkeley with Dr. Nirem Murthy where he intends to jump into bioengineering and develop delivery strategies for genome editing technology. After that, Kyle hopes to land an industrial position at the interface of chemistry and biology and be a part of a creative and team that operates at the forefront of human knowledge to design and discover novel therapeutics to change the course of human disease.

Congratulations, Dr. Giesler!

Congratulations, Dr. Rolando Rengifo!

RoRolando Rengifo successfully defended his dissertation, “From Amyloid to Copper Arrays: The design of a functional Metalloamyloid Nanostructure (MAN),” on July 6th, 2017. His committee was chaired by David Lynn with Khalid Salaita and Vincent Conticello as additional members. 

In addition to his accomplishments in the lab, Rolando was a dedicated student leader during his time at Emory. He served as President of Pi Alpha Chemical Society immediately followed  by a term as President of the Graduate Student Council. During his time as a fraternity house director, he was named Fraternity House Director of the Year. Rolando has also been recognized for his leadership with the Student Impact Award and the Laney Development Council Leadership Award. He is a member of the Omicron Delta Kappa national leadership honor society.

Next up, Rolando plans to attend law school at the Notre Dame School of Law on his path towards a future career as a patent attorney.

Congratulations, Rolando!

Congratulations, Dr. Galior!

Kornelia poses with her group and her best friend after a successful defense.
Kornelia poses with her group and her best friend after a successful defense.

Kornelia Galior successfully defended her thesis, “Protein-Based Tension Probes: From Mapping Integrin Adhesion Forces to the Mechanopharmacology of Smooth Muscle Cells” on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017. Kornelia’s thesis committed was led by Khalid Salaita with Vince Conticello and David Lynn as additional members.

During her time at Emory, Kornelia received two Quayle awards. She will start a clinical chemistry fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in July.

Congratulations, Kornelia!

Chemistry Students Advance in Collegiate Inventors Competition

Aaron Blanchard and Khalid Salaita with the Rolosense.
Aaron Blanchard and Khalid Salaita with the Rolosense. Photo via Georgia Tech.

Kevin Yehl and Aaron Blanchard (Salaita Lab) have advanced to the national finals in the 2016 Collegiate Inventors Competition in Alexandria, Virginia. Their invention, Rolosense, turns chemical energy into rolling motion.

Founded in 1990, the Collegiate Inventors Competition recognizes and rewards the nation’s top collegiate inventors. In partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the Collegiate Inventors Competition is the nation’s foremost competition encouraging innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity in students who are working on cutting-edge inventions at their colleges and universities. The Competition is a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and is sponsored by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and AbbVie Foundation, with additional support from Arrow Electronics.

For more on their achievement, check out this article in the GA Tech/Emory Biomedical Engineering program newsletter.

Congratulations, Kevin and Aaron!

Update: The Rolosense team won bronze!

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.”

Alumni Spotlight: Chris Curfman’s Transition from Science to Law

Chris Curfman. Photo by Yuan Chang.
Chris Curfman. Photo by Yuan Chang.

By: Yuan Chang (Salaita Group)

When Chris Curfman (00G) entered Emory, he could not have imagined where he would end up two decades later. After completing a PhD in chemistry, Chris shifted his focus away from academic research to pursue a career in intellectual property law. Since then, he has been named a Georgia Super Lawyers “Rising Star” by Atlanta Magazine and became a founding member of Meunier Carlin & Curfman, which has since evolved into one of the largest intellectual property firms in the Southeast. In a climate where more PhD students pursue careers outside the professoriate, Chris’ story is an inspiration. “While we are all united by our intellectual curiosity and our love of science, this common drive can diverge into various fulfilling careers,” says Chris. From his trials and triumph with his research at Emory to his self-discovery and transformation into the rising star that he is today, Chris has accumulated a vast wealth of memories and insight, which is highlighted in this edition of Alumni Spotlight.

During graduate school, Chris joined the lab of Dennis C. Liotta, who would have a profound impact on his trajectory. Chris undertook a particularly difficult thesis project working with sphingolipid analogs. The process of constantly overcoming challenges instilled in him the crucial lifelong value of perseverance that would later prove pivotal outside of the lab. This determination was also critical in prevailing over another personal challenge. While Chris had always fostered a passion for teaching, he grappled with a fear of public speaking. As one of the graduate qualification exams, he was required to present his research in front of the entire Department of Chemistry student body. He recalls that he would “enter the conference room when it was empty and practice over and over again.” He went on to deliver a successful talk. Invigorated by this positive experience and his innate passion for teaching, Chris began to actively seek out opportunities for public speaking, which paved his way to standing on the podium of Emory law school as an adjunct professor.

Nonetheless, Chris’s time at Emory was not “all work and no play.” Chris has fond memories of his time as the president of the Pi Alpha Chemical Society. He recalls organizing graduate events, such as movie nights and picnics, to promote social interaction and collaboration amongst graduate students. To him, “It was a fun and great environment. It was a place where you could set aside the work and just talk and socialize.”

During Chris’ last year of graduate school, his advisor began to take notice of his skill at technical writing and public speaking, as well as his proficient interpersonal skills. Realizing that Chris’ skill set complemented the profession of patent law, Liotta catalyzed Chris’ foray into the world of patent law by inviting him to events where he could network with established lawyers. It was at one of these events that Chris had a fateful meeting leading to an interview offer. That was an electrifying time in Chris’ life. Within the span of that final summer in graduate school, Chris managed to simultaneously complete 3 milestones: defending his PhD, gaining acceptance into law school, and receiving a job offer working in a law firm.

After Chris completed his J.D. at Georgia State University, he practiced several years at a small intellectual property firm. However, that firm was acquired by a much larger general practice and Chris found himself at a crossroads. Chris felt that the large firm business model did not align with his own passions and goals. Chris wanted to retain the close relationships with his clients and have the opportunity to devote more time and attention to their needs, yet he found this more difficult in a large general practice firm. It was at this pivotal moment that Chris received a life-changing phone call from a former colleague who shared a similar vision. That initial conversation ultimately blossomed into a group of eight like-minded patent lawyers who pooled together their resources and brought their vision to a new company. When asked about his emotions at this time, Chris said, “this was both a thrilling and terrifying period in my life. I had to invest everything I had into this venture, including putting my life savings on the line, but I could finally do what I had originally set out to do.” At long last, he had the autonomy to become the champion he had dreamed of becoming for clients who must navigate the treacherous waters of patent law.

It has been nearly two decades since Chris made that decision to transition from lab work to law, but all the lessons he learned during graduate school still serve him well today. Chris says that he finds his current profession to be fulfilling and fun, and he feels fortunate to be involved in a career that allows him to intersect science with people, especially being in a position to be able to help others achieve their goals. When asked what words of advice he would give to current graduate students, he implored encouraged them to “never give up, finish their Ph.D., practice public speaking and effective writing, and network whenever you can.” Chris’ journey serves as an inspiration for the next generation of students looking to apply their doctoral studies to broader society.

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Yuan Chang

Yuan Chang is currently a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Khalid Salaita. She entered Emory in 2011 and has been studying live cell tension using molecular tension fluorescent microscopy (MTFM).