SMS assistant professor exemplifies cutting-edge molecular science research

January 8, 2019

From an early age, Nick Stephanopoulos was curious about the world around him. The love of science and the “what if’s” — and a father who was a chemical engineering professor at MIT — nurtured that curiosity with explanations of how to approach and learn about the world around him.

The excitement of understanding something new drew him to the field of chemistry and the potential to contribute something truly lasting — either an application (e.g. a medical therapy) or adding knowledge to the world. Nick Stephanopoulos Nick Stephanopoulos is an assistant professor in Arizona State University's School of Molecular Sciences and a member of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics. Download Full Image

In the fall of 2015, Stephanopoulos joined Arizona State University and the School of Molecular Sciences, then known as the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, as an assistant professor. His research interests are protein/peptide-DNA nanotechnology for novel bioactive materials, medicine, energy and nanorobotics. Initially, he was drawn by the Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics (CMDB), led by center director Hao Yan. The CMDB provided fertile ground for getting his exact research program off the ground, and Yan was building up a network of top-notch colleagues and young faculty.

“I like the name change to SMS quite a bit because it exemplifies extending beyond simple molecules to nanostructures, proteins/peptides/DNA, etc. After visiting and finding out more about SMS, I really liked the excitement of the school, the ability to do rather unconventional work, and the friendly and welcoming nature of my colleagues,” said Stephanopoulos. “With lots of new faculty hires, both at SMS and across ASU, the university feels like it’s really ‘up and coming’ and going to do great things. Being here is a way to be a part of that from the ground up.”

The past three years have been busy but exciting ones for Stephanopoulos. He has been able to create a research program that truly reflects his interests, and in this aspect it is fulfilling — getting to create something new and interesting, but also affect the lives of others, like his graduate students or people in his classes. That’s not to say that it’s not a stressful job; some days can feel like being thrown into the deep end of the pool without swimming lessons. But that is what keeps it interesting, says Stephanopoulos: “I not only get to learn new things every day, but also have to figure out how to navigate professorship, because there is no ‘standard’ way to do it. This flexibility to tailor it to my style is really cool.”

As a junior faculty member, Stephanopoulos' opportunities to collaborate have included extensive interactions with engineering, biology and physics; the nature of SMS encourages faculty to connect with these other fields and bring molecular sophistication into them. Stephanopoulos is courtesy faculty in BME and ChemE, with the encouragement of Neal Woodbury, professor and director of the School of Molecular Sciences.

Stephanopoulos was selected as one of the ASU top recipients for the prestigious Air Force Young Investigator award in 2016. The award, “Peptide-DNA Tiles as Building Blocks for Complex Nanostructures,” will support his work as part of CMDB, under Yan, who also holds the Milton Glick Chair in Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“The goal of the Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics is to use nature’s design rules as an inspiration in advancing biomedical, energy and electronics innovation through self-assembling molecules to create intelligent materials for better component control and for synthesis into higher-order systems,” said Yan. “The Air Force Office of Scientific Research YIP award will facilitate Nick’s research agenda in this direction and is a significant recognition of their creativity and track record at the early stage of his career.”

In 2018 Stephanopoulos was announced as one of the recipients of two distinguished awards, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) New Innovator Award and the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award. The New Innovator Award specifically “supports exceptionally creative early-career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects,” targeting investigators within 10 years of completing their doctoral degree or postdoctoral training. Stephanopoulos’ awards are among the 58 given to investigators nationwide this year; each recipient receives a $2.3 million grant for a five-year project. The NSF CAREER Awards are the most competitive and prestigious awards given by the NSF to junior faculty. They support teacher-scholars who effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization. Stephanopoulos' award is titled "Hybrid protein-DNA nanostructures and devices."

“Our junior faculty are working at the cutting edges of molecular science, in areas that are recognized by national organizations as critical, and that support the overall societal missions of our school. We are proud of our younger faculty members who are helping to expand the reputation for excellence in research of the former Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at ASU," said Woodbury. "These awards tell us that the school is able to hire the best young scientists as new faculty.”

Stephanopoulos sees the opportunities to make connections with his students and work in collaborative environment — reinforcing the new conception of what “chemistry” or “molecular sciences” is. He credits the really wonderful group of people he works with, including colleagues, lab members and students in the courses he teaches.

“I am constantly stimulated to learn new things, mentor others and feel like I’m really building something unique,” said Stephanopoulos. “Any given day you can have that flash of insight, you never know what the next big discovery will be.”

Alumni and Special Events Coordinator, School of Earth & Space Exploration


image title

Scientific pursuits inside monastery walls

January 8, 2019

Monks learn science writing, thanks to the Dalai Lama's commitment to education and the efforts of a host of experts, including an ASU English professor

For Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, his love of science began in childhood. Curious to know what made a mechanical watch tick, he took it apart and put it back together again. Despite the success of that early endeavor, he didn’t receive any formal scientific education until he was much older, something he considered a disservice when he found that it actually complemented and enhanced his Buddhist training and understanding of the scriptures.

Today, science education is part of the curriculum in Buddhist monasteries, thanks to the Dalai Lama’s resolve to make it so. And while it might seem odd from a Western perspective for a religious figure to embrace the pursuit of empirical study, the Dalai Lama espouses the belief that “all avenues of inquiry — scientific as well as spiritual — must be pursued in order to arrive at a complete picture of the truth.”

Arizona State University Associate Professor of English Jessica Early appreciates what can be gained from the intersection of seemingly disparate practices. As director of the Central Arizona Writing Project, a local offshoot of the National Writing Project, she has taught several workshops on how to write about science.

This past December, Early took that expertise to Dzongkar Choede Monastery in southern India, where she and a diverse group of colleagues participated as instructors in the Sager Science Leadership Institute, which trains monks in how to be leaders of science education and nurturers of their monastic communities’ growing relationship with science.

“I thought this was going to be something totally out of my comfort zone,” Early said. “But one of the things I’ve learned about teaching writing is how it really translates to different disciplines. So I was delighted that it was able to transfer to such a new setting and audience.”

The Sager Science Leadership Institute was created about 20 years ago with funding from Jewish-American philanthropist Bobby Sager, who sympathized with the Tibetan exile story’s similarity to the Jewish exile from Israel. Sager created the institute after learning of the Dalai Lama’s wish to educate the exiled monks in science.

Since then, the institute has established science centers at nearly every monastery in India and hosted three cohorts of roughly 30 to 40 monastics from all across the country.

Early on, the San Francisco-based educational museum Exploratorium and the National Writing Project became involved to help design the institute and supply instructors.

For 10 days, Early and Tom Meyer, director of the National Writing Project’s New York-based offshoot, the Hudson Valley Writing Project, worked with a translator to co-teach 22 monks how to write about science, how to write about leadership and how to write for enjoyment. Much like the workshops Early runs every summer for teachers in Arizona, the goal was to teach the monks not only how to write in a certain way, but also how to teach others how to write.

In one writing exercise, Early asked the monks to write about a favorite dish of theirs, both its personal significance as well as the recipe.

“That’s science writing,” Early said. “Having to write the ingredients and the step-by-step instructions. But then, they also wrote about why it’s special to them. So I tried to blend different genres of audience and purpose.”

Another writing exercise was influenced by Early’s book “Stirring Up Justice,” which teaches activism and changemaking.

“One of the things we talked about is how changemakers create plans for change,” she said. “So they wrote action plans that talked about their purpose, their plan, the resources they needed, the questions they had … and one of the reasons for writing the action plans was so they could use it as a proposal.”

Some of the monks proposed hosting a conference while others proposed introducing informal science education at their monasteries. Much of what the monks wrote during the institute will be put together in an anthology that they will share at their respective monasteries across the country.

The monks also got practice teaching. Every day, they taught a different Buddhist concept or fact to Early and Meyer, such as meditation and why they wear robes and why they are a certain color (they’re seen as uniforms and they choose ugly colors so as not to draw attention to themselves).

Early and Meyer were also joined by colleagues from Exploratorium and NYU’s physics department, who taught lessons on various scientific phenomena, such as electricity, the phases of the moon and the inner workings of the human brain.

All of the instructors collaborated to teach the monks how to host a science fair for elementary children, with Early and Meyer overseeing the written-explanation portion of the monks’ posters.

Early has received a research grant to publish what she learned from the experience. During her time in India, she took field notes and collected data on best practices for teaching through a translator, co-teaching and teaching students who write in dual languages, among other things.

“My work as a writing researcher is looking at the way community is created around writing and how literacy happens in a learning environment in particular contexts,” she said.

And while this was a unique context for Early, one thing she noticed was how smoothly her lessons translated between cultures.  

“Teaching is very connected to your context and to the people that you’re teaching,” she said, “but it can also transfer to new contexts and new places. And that fits so well with ASU’s commitment to social embeddedness.”

Top photo: Monks participating in the Sager Science Leadership Institute write about science phenomena they have observed. Photo courtesy of Jessica Early