15 Good Minutes: Jen Heemstra

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Jen Heemstra, PhD is a Professor of Chemistry at Emory University. In 2017, Jen and her research group moved from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah to the Department of Chemistry at Emory University. Research in the Heemstra lab is focused on harnessing the molecular recognition and self-assembly properties of nucleic acids for applications in biosensing and bioimaging.

For Emory Professor Jen Heemstra, Ph.D., her career in supramolecular chemistry is constantly focusing on both creativity and innovation. To Heemstra, this field of supramolecular chemistry is fun and exciting, since it is a field that involves constant learning and growth.  In the Heemstra Lab, the focus is on research surrounding unmet needs in biomedicine, the environment, or research tools. Heemstra and her lab build and design systems to address these unmet needs using biomolecular interactions.

“It’s like building with Lego bricks but instead building with molecules,” Heemstra said, “It’s being an inventor and a builder on a molecular level. I recognized that pretty early on.” The molecules that are used in her research are biomolecules, which are any molecule found in nature. Heemstra works primarily with biomacromolecules like biopolymers, nucleic acids, and proteins. Heemstra and her research lab work with the way these biomacromolecules recognize small molecules as well.

“We happen to love doing supramolecular chemistry with biomolecules because proteins and nucleic acids have been evolved over billions of years in nature to have these absolutely phenomenal molecular recognition and assembly properties,” Heemstra explained, “They recognize each other with incredible specificity and then form assemblies or binding interactions and then even have a function that comes out of that.”

For Heemstra, innovation is at the center of her research. “We are inventors. We recognize a need, somewhere where there is a technology gap, that the current available technologies cannot fulfill. What drives us is this idea of building new types of systems or exploring new approaches to solving that problem that haven’t previously been explored,” she explained. The Heemstra lab is always striving to solve problems in new ways, which could lead to breakthroughs in therapeutics or diagnostics.

These days, Heemstra and her lab are thriving with various projects in the works. One project that they are currently working on involves finding ways to pull small molecules out of water. “We are interested in both removing toxins from water but also to be able to concentrate down more precious molecules, like natural products, that might be produced in marine environments,” Heemstra explained, “If we can filter water through a membrane and collect these precious molecules that have biological activity, it could be a way to purify them.” The Heemstra lab has also developed novel techniques for detecting certain modifications to DNA that can lead to mutations and cancer.

A key technology that the Heemstra Lab has developed centers around the development of a “bilingual” molecule that combines the coding languages of the nucleic acids of DNA and the amino acids of proteins.  Previous molecules have focused only on the properties of either nucleic acids or amino acids. Heemstra and her lab want to harness the powers of both information systems within a single molecule. The resulting “bilingual” molecule is highly generalizable, which gives it major potential for diverse biomedical and nanotechnology applications.

Heemstra’s decision to enter academia was not always planned. She knew that she was interested in this field because of the freedom and autonomy it would give her to drive a research program, as well as the opportunity to work with students and postdocs. However, she thought that entering academia would be too risky for a new mother. When she was first applying to jobs, there were very few examples of women who had babies and were successful in this field. Heemstra credits her undergrad mentor and her Ph.D. advisor for being the people that encouraged her to pursue academia.

“My undergrad research mentor pushed me over the edge,” Heemstra said, “He wrote me an email that said ‘I totally understand if you decide not to go into academia, obviously it’s your choice. But it would be a real shame if you don’t because you would be really good at it.’ That made me decide I would rather live with failure than regret. So, I decided to go for it and see what would happen.”

When asked what advice she would give to aspiring researchers that are looking to follow a similar path to her, Heemstra highlighted skillsets. “Creativity is a skill, the ability to generate research ideas is a skill,” Heemstra said. “You could read a research paper to learn about what they did, but also to think about what else you can do.  Communication is another necessary skill. The impact of our research is only going to be as big as our ability to communicate it to other people. The more you are able to grow those skills the more impact that your research will have.”

Heemstra Lab: https://www.heemstralab.com/