(4s) Uncovering and Enhancing Intrinsic Characteristics of Proteins for Novel Applications | AIChE

(4s) Uncovering and Enhancing Intrinsic Characteristics of Proteins for Novel Applications


Spangler, L. - Presenter, Princeton University
Research Interests

Proteins have evolved through selective biological pathways to serve many diverse roles in nature, with a range of capabilities including catalytic activity, structural support, and therapeutic processes. As such, proteins are often implemented to solve modern medical, environmental, and material development challenges at the industrial level. Proteins are ideal for commercial scale application because they function under ambient conditions and are often easily expressed in large quantities. While the range of protein function is enormously vast, the implementation of synthetic proteins has often been limited to their original function identified from natural systems, and processes with conditions matching the original protein environment. Expanding the range of applications to match the full potential of protein functionality requires overcoming two main challenges; 1) integration of proteins with traditionally non-biological systems, such as nanomaterials or inorganic supports, and 2) investigation of previously overlooked functional properties of proteins which may be useful for optoelectronic or other novel applications.

I aim to address these problems by converging my experience in both synthetic biology and material science to synthesize and improve integrated protein-inorganic hybrid systems, enabling new applications in fields such as energy production, catalysis, and sensing. I am also interested in studying proteins from the standpoint of material synthesis applications: what other roles can proteins play in traditionally inorganic systems which have been previously overlooked? Can we incorporate multiple functions into a single protein or protein system to expand the previously available application space?

Here, I motivate these research interests by presenting my previous and current work on protein functionalities and their potential applications. I demonstrate the ability of the enzyme, cystathionine γ-lyase, to produce semiconductor quantum dots via a biomineralization process in aqueous solution under ambient conditions, making it an ideal synthesis approach for large-scale commercial processes. My current work investigates the de novo protein, ConK, which is also capable of producing semiconductor quantum dots, but with a higher degree of size control, improving the final biomineralized product. Importantly, de novo proteins are not found in nature but are made entirely by design, indicating that even randomly created proteins may possess desirable protein functionalities which are yet uncovered. Additional current work characterizes newly observed optical signatures which are intrinsic to both natural and de novo proteins. Using time resolved spectroscopy, I demonstrate the origin of this signal results from specific interactions between amino acids along the protein chain. Each project demonstrates that proteins can possess functionalities which are useful for applications in fields which are not traditionally considered to be biological.

Teaching Interests

Throughout my scientific career, I have been enriched academically thanks to the guidance provided by mentors. A mentor is invaluable: they listen to your experiences, understand your research challenges, and provide critical feedback which helps broaden your academic knowledgebase. Consequently, I am truly passionate about mentoring others, as I know personally what a significant difference a mentor can make. I have recently found that my natural tendency towards mentoring also plays a dominant role in my teaching style. Over the past three years, I have taught Mathematical Modeling to over 100 middle school and high school students through the W.E.B. DuBois Summer Program at Princeton University. In this program, I designed an entire course curriculum centered on the use of mathematical modeling in everyday life. I found my course to be most effective when it was designed to be highly discussion-based, allowing me to fully engage with my students. By asking students to share their familiarity with a topic, I can use their existing knowledge as a foundation, which can be built upon through open dialog to expand their understanding of science, mathematics, and engineering.

I believe an interactive, dialog-based teaching approach makes learning more akin to a conversation as it enables students from every background feel comfortable and equipped to learn. This approach also allows me to gain critical, real-time feedback of the comprehension, understanding, and knowledge-retention of my students, such that I can actively tailor my lesson plans to meet the needs of each individual class. My teaching experience with the W.E.B. DuBois Summer Program at Princeton has challenged me to formulate innovative and engaging lesson plans that grab my student’s attention, while instilling them with important engineering, mathematical and scientific concepts. This program has also granted me the unique opportunity to identify and evolve my own teaching style by designing and improving my own curricula. I would enjoy bringing this interactive, discussion-based learning style to more traditional chemical engineering courses such as transport phenomena or kinetics, as well as other courses related to synthetic biology and biological physics.

In addition to teaching mathematical modeling courses, I am also passionate about teaching scientific writing. I am an active Writing in Science and Engineering Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University. For the past year, I have taught two courses specifically focused on writing scientific journal articles and research proposals to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at Princeton. These courses are strongly focused on improving clarity in both writing and data visualization, with an emphasis on article motivation and narrative development. I particularly enjoy teaching these courses because they are entirely discussion based and centered around giving feedback on my student’s drafts for future journal articles. I find this dynamic, interactive teaching approach allows me to modify my teaching material as the course progresses, ensuring that my students are learning the most relevant strategies and tools which help them publish their own current scientific research. I believe scientific writing courses are important but often overlooked, especially at the graduate level, and hope to continue teaching these courses in my career as I mentor the next generation of scientists and engineers.