In the News
Project leader and chemistry professor Dhandapani “DV” Venkataraman, is one of five researchers from a campus group that has been selected to receive a one-year, $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s “10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments” series to conduct a series of national workshops to identify research challenges associated with transitioning to an equitable and sustainable energy system.
The grant is the second this year from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to researchers at UMass for a similar purpose, evidence of a growing worldwide interest in developing sustainable energy systems that consider and even prioritize the resources and needs of all communities.
“A transition toward a less carbon-intensive energy system is underway globally,” Venkataraman points out. “The challenge is to envision how the energy system might evolve in a way that is consistent with resources and needs.”
Further, he explains, “When we are thinking about the emerging energy technologies landscape, we need to incorporate equity as an intrinsic design component. This requires energy scientists, equity scholars and other stakeholders who normally work independently to come together and identify the priorities and needs.”
Hardy Wins Teaching Award
Jeanne Hardy has won the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools Graduate Faculty Teaching Award (Doctoral level). The Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools includes member institutions in 11 states, Washington, D.C. and 6 Canadian provinces. The award recognizes Prof. Hardy’s excellence and creativity in teaching graduate students, as well as her innovation in graduate curriculum development and implementation. Prof. Hardy has provided industrially-relevant and hands-on training to graduate students in Chemistry and several life sciences and engineering majors via courses she developed such as Drug Design and Frontiers in Biotechnology and through co-founding and directing the interdisciplinary Biotechnology Training Program, which trains students in biotechnology via courses and industrial internships.
Finalist for ACS President Has Ties to UMass Chemistry
Professor Mary K. Carroll of Union College is one of two finalists in the fall election for 2021 president-elect of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society with 152,000 members in more than 140 countries. Carroll has local ties to the UMass Chemistry department, having been a postdoctoral researcher with Professor Julian Tyson (1991-92).
Carroll has co-directed the Union College Aerogel Laboratory, a productive interdisciplinary research group. To date, more than 150 undergraduate STEM majors, several high-school students and faculty colleagues from Union and other institutions have participated in the group’s research in the fabrication, characterization and applications of aerogel materials.
She is active in the American Chemical Society (ACS) and since 1998 has served as a councilor of the Eastern New York ACS section. At the national level, she currently serves on the ACS Committee on Science. Based on her contributions to science and service to the ACS, Mary Carroll was selected for recognition as a member of the class of 2016 ACS Fellows.
Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) has named Michelle Farkas, chemistry, one of 13 new Fellows for its Scialog: Chemical Machinery of the Cell (CMC) initiative.
Co-sponsored by RCSA and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Scialog: Chemical Machinery of the Cell aims to catalyze breakthroughs in our understanding of chemical processes in the living cell that will lead to a new era of advancement in cell biology.
The new early-career researchers, together with Fellows selected in the previous two years, will convene virtually Oct. 9, for a half-day meeting. The final in-person CMC conference is scheduled for Oct. 7 – 10, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz.
“It’s terrific to have 13 new Fellows join this outstanding community of rising stars,” said senior program director Richard Wiener. Scialog is short for “science + dialog.” As part of each multiyear initiative, a diverse and inclusive cohort of Fellows is selected from multiple disciplines and institutions across the U.S. and Canada to maximize creative thinking and innovative ideas.
At each conference, participants form multidisciplinary teams to design research projects, which they pitch to leading scientists who have facilitated discussions throughout the meeting. A committee of these facilitators then recommends seed funding to catalyze the most promising of those team projects.
“Even though we can’t meet in person in 2020, we’re excited to keep the community engaged virtually to think of new, potentially high-impact ideas to advance our understanding of cellular processes,” Wiener added. “That momentum will carry us into our final CMC conference and a final round of funding next year.”
A chemist and kinesiologist got on a bus, but this isn’t the set-up to a joke. Instead, kinesiologist and lead author Ned Debold and chemist Dhandapani Venkataraman, “DV,” began talking on their bus commute to the University of Massachusetts Amherst and discovered their mutual interest in how energy is converted from one form to another – for Debold, in muscle tissue and for DV, in solar cells.
An alternative energy source to replace the body’s usual one, a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP, could control muscle activity, and might lead to new muscle spasm-calming treatments in cerebral palsy, for example, or activate or enhance skeletal muscle function in MS, ALS and chronic heart failure.
The usual approach to seeking a new compound is to systematically test each one among millions until one seems worth followup – the classic “needle in a haystack” says DV. “At one point I suggested to Ned, ‘Why don’t we build the needle ourselves instead?’ That started us on this interesting project that put together people who would otherwise never work together.” Computational chemist, Jianhan Chen, was invited to model interactions between the molecules DV was making and the myosin molecules Debold was using to test them.
Chen explains, “We did computer modeling because experimentally it is difficult to know how myosin might be using the molecules DV was synthesizing. We can use computer simulation to provide a detailed picture at the molecular level to understand why these compounds might have certain effects. This can provide insight into not only how myosin interacts with the current set of compounds, but also it can provide a roadmap for DV to use to design new compounds that are even more effective at altering myosin function.”
This month, the researchers report in the Biophysical Journal that they have made a series of synthetic compounds to serve as alternative energy sources for the muscle protein myosin, and that myosin can use this new energy source to generate force and velocity. Mike Woodward from the Debold lab is the first author of their paper and Xiaorong Liu from the Chen lab performed the computer simulation.
The next stage for the trio will be to map the process at various points in myosin’s biochemical cycle.
In the molecular-level world of ion channels – passageways through membranes that carry signals in a cell’s environment and allow it to respond – researchers have debated about the role of a small piece of the channel called a linker, says computational biophysicist Jianhan Chen.
The linker communicates between the pore and its environment-sensing apparatus, and knowing its function – whether it’s inert or plays an active sensing role – has been unclear. But it might lead to a new target for drugs and treatment in conditions such as hypertension, autism, epilepsy, stroke and asthma, he adds. Now, Chen and colleagues at Washington University report in eLife that their experiments have revealed “the first direct example of how non-specific membrane interactions of a covalent linker can regulate the activation of a biological ion channel.”
Specifically, Chen and co-first authors Mahdieh Yazdani and Zhiguang Jia at UMass Chemistry, with co-first author Guohui Zhang, Jingyi Shi and Jianmin Cui at Washington University, studied a pore called the large-conductance potassium (BK) channel. It is important in muscle and neuron function and is controlled by calcium concentration via a calcium-sensing domain. It is also controlled by electrical potential through a voltage-sensing domain. Either way, it opens and closes like a gate – “a really common architecture in transmembrane receptors and channels,” Chen says.
During the first 48-hour Sciathon hosted by the Council for the Nobel Laureate Meetings, Steve Acquah, the UMass Amherst Libraries Digital Media Lab coordinator and associate research professor of chemistry, worked as part of a team (Group Clifton) to develop a science news verification tool, authentiSci. The Clifton group became finalists at the end of June and were recently awarded second place in the category of ‘Lindau Guidelines’ and a shared prize of 1,000 Euros. AuthentiSci can be accessed through the website authentisci.com and will primarily be used through a Google Chrome Extension, which is now available at the Chrome Web Store. The extension is one of the first of its kind that gives scientists the ability to score science news stories, providing a measure of confidence for the reader.
The section of the Lindau Guidelines had the highest amount of competition, with 23 out of the 48 groups working on Lindau Guideline based projects. The other project sections focused on the topics Communicating Climate Change and Capitalism After Corona.
The extension was produced in response to the Lindau Guidelines introduced by Elizabeth Blackburn during the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting held in Lindau, Germany, in June 2018. To use the extension, scientists would authenticate through their ORCID account, insert a URL from a news story, and follow the prompts to evaluate the story on authentisci.com. With the extension now available, people from around the world will be able to see verified news stories.
Acquah produced a video during the 48-hour event highlighting the work of the team.
Alzheimer’s disease has been intensely studied for decades, too much is still not known about molecular processes in the brain that cause it. Chemistry Professor Jianhan Chen says new insights from analytic theory and molecular simulation techniques offer a better understanding of amyloid fibril growth and brain pathology.
As senior author Chen notes, the “amyloid hypothesis” was promising – amyloid protein fibrils are a central feature in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. “But the process is really difficult to study,” he says. Chen and first author Zhiguang Jia, a research scientist in Chen’s computational biophysics lab, explored how building-block peptides form fibrils. “We are really proud of this work because, to the best of our knowledge, for the first time we have described the comprehensive process of how fibril growth can happen. We illustrate that the effects of disease-causing mutations often arise from the cumulative effects of many small perturbations. A comprehensive description is absolutely critical to generate reliable and testable hypothesis,” he adds. Details of their multi-scale approach with many atomistic simulations are in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The department hosted a virtual Undergraduate Awards Ceremony on May 7th via Zoom.
Students and their families were joined by faculty, staff, donors, and Dean Serio. While the applause and experience were virtual, the appreciation and gratitude towards our students and donors is sincere.
We are so proud of our students for their amazing ability to excel under such unusual circumstances!
Sankaran "Thai" Thayumanavan, Jeanne Hardy and Trisha L. Andrew received a one-year RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation, to investigate whether they can develop a simple, color-changing test swab for COVID-19 in the next year that would alert users if their body carries a viral product left after infection. RAPID supports proposals “having a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.”
The three researchers bring complementary expertise to the team, and are seeking “a cheap test that will tell if you should get checked by medical professionals because you are probably infected,” said Thayumanavan. Andrew adds, “Like a pregnancy test, but for viral infection.”
They stress that this is a research effort. “We are being very careful to point out that we are working on a general solution for detecting viral infections, which can be easily customized to specific viruses and then rapidly mobilized in times of dire need,” says Hardy. Andrew adds, “We are building up the basic science and chemistry needed for anyone to rapidly mass-produce tests that can be used at home. This concept certainly applies to the current COVID-19 pandemic but can also be relevant to future outbreaks.”
We can’t express enough how proud we are of our 2020 chemistry graduates! Students showed remarkable resilience adapting to new learning environments, and demonstrated amazing creativity with remote research.
Graduations are milestones best experienced in a social context, but with physical distancing measures putting the in-person ceremonies on hold, we hope you will join us for Chemistry’s Virtual Senior Recognition on May 8th, starting at 2pm, prior to the university’s 4:30pm virtual celebration. CNS will launch a Senior Celebration page with well wishes and online activities at 8am on May 8th, so be sure to connect with UMass throughout the day.
Friends of the graduates, students, alumni, faculty, and staff can share their well-wishes and congratulations to the graduates by sharing photos and video clips to CNS Communications at email@example.com by noontime, Monday, May 4th.
Two Chemistry Students Recognized by NSF GRFP
Big News! Two Chemistry students have been recognized by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.
Congratulations to Isabella Jaen Maisonet for her award of an NSF GRFP fellowship! Isabella is an undergraduate currently working with Mike Knapp’s group, and will will start grad school this Fall in the Chemical Biology PhD program at Harvard.
Congratulations to Kaitlyn Chhe, honorable mention in the NSF GRFP competition! Kaitlyn is a graduate student working with Michelle Farkas’s group. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a highly competitive national program recognizing outstanding students.
It is amazing that two of our students have been recognized in the same year.