First-generation ASU student blazes new trail

September 14, 2020

Jesus Peralta is an only child and the first in his whole family to attend college, so the pressure to do well in school is something that motivates him every day.

He graduated from high school with an associate degree in science from South Mountain Community College and started his journey at Arizona State University in fall 2019. Jesus Peralta School of Molecular Sciences undergraduate student Jesus Peralta. Download Full Image

This year, the sophomore was selected to receive the School of Molecular Sciences First-Generation Scholarship. Funded by the School of Molecular Sciences community, the scholarship supports outstanding, first-generation undergraduate students completing degrees in chemistry or biochemistry in the school. Peralta is majoring in biochemistry and microbiology, with a minor in global health.

“I knew I would be the first experiencing many of the struggles that come with obtaining a higher education. However, I am setting the path for my cousins that are much younger than me to learn about the power of opening your heart and mind to a higher education,” he said. 

Being a first-generation student in college has been a remarkable experience for him so far. He chose ASU with the hope of one day being able to find a community of support and passion for curing diseases. At the School of Molecular Sciences, he found just that. He was drawn in by the research aspects, innovative efforts and support that the school had to offer.

Peralta is an ambitious student with a passion for helping his community prosper and serves as an outstanding role model for many prospective first-generation college students. He works as a Be A Leader adviser, where he dedicates his time inspiring students in secondary schools to continue their journey to earn a college degree, especially in the STEM field.

However, in his first year in college, Peralta came across a challenging obstacle. The pandemic sent him home to finish his remaining semester of freshman year through Zoom. Despite finding it harder to focus on his academics at home, Peralta persevered and completed his first year by organizing his time better with a planner and including time for self-care.

Over the summer, he took part in a scientific journal club, which helped him prepare for the upcoming semester's scientific reading terms. 

Question: Where do you see yourself in the future after graduation?

Answer: I am interested in applying to medical school but am keeping an open mind. I am overwhelmed by my opportunities and have an interest in research.

Q: If you were to describe your freshman year in one word, what would it be and why?

A: One word that describes my freshman year is exploratory. This year was the time to get to know me and the resources available around me to be successful. I have been able to talk to my advisers, the First-Year Success Center, and joined the SAACSStudent Affiliates of the American Chemical Society organization on campus.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience with ASU so far?

A: I joined the Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society, and they encouraged me to volunteer at a Welcome Week event. I talked to children and met (School of Molecular Sciences) community members, where I could do science experiments in front of them and show them that science is fun.

Q: What is one piece of advice that you would give to an School of Molecular Sciences freshman who is in your shoes today?

A: I would tell them not to be scared to ask questions, step outside of their comfort zone, network/meet new people, and find out what their passion is. 

Written by Mariela Lozano, School of Molecular Sciences communctions assistant. Jenny Green contributed to the story. 

New method to design diamond lattices, other crystals from microscopic building blocks

September 14, 2020

An impressive array of architectural forms can be produced from the popular interlocking building blocks known as Legos. All that is needed is a child’s imagination to construct a virtually infinite variety of complex shapes.

In a new study appearing in the journal Physical Review Letters, researchers describe a technique for using Lego-like elements at the scale of a few billionths of a meter. Further, they are able to cajole these design elements to self-assemble, with each Lego piece identifying its proper mate and linking up in a precise sequence to complete the desired nanostructure. Petr Sulc is a researcher at the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics and ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences. Download Full Image

While the technique described in the new study is simulated on computer, the strategy is applicable to self-assembly methods common to the field of DNA nanotechnology. Here, the equivalent of each Lego piece consists of a nanostructures made out of DNA, the famous molecular repository of our genetic code. The four nucleotides making up DNA — commonly labelled A, C, T and G — stick to one another according to a reliable rule: A nucleotides always pair with Ts and C nucleotides with Gs.

Using base-pairing properties allows researchers like Petr Sulc, corresponding author of the new study, to design DNA nanostructures that can take shape in a test tube, as if on autopilot.

“The possible number of ways how to design interactions between the building blocks is enormous, something that is called a ‘combinatorial explosion,’” Sulc said. “It is impossible to individually check every possible building block design and see if it can self-assemble into the desired structure. In our work, we provide a new general framework that can efficiently search the space of possible solutions and find the one which self-assembles into the desired shape and avoids other undesired assemblies.”

Sulc is a researcher at Arizona State University's Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics and School of Molecular Sciences. He is joined by his colleague Lukáš Kroc along with international collaborators Flavio Romano and John Russo from Italy.

The new technique marks an important stepping stone in the rapidly-developing field of DNA nanotechnology, where self-assembled forms are finding their way into everything from nanoscale tweezers to cancer-hunting DNA robots.

Despite impressive advances, construction methods relying on molecular self-assembly have had to contend with unintended bondings of building material. The challenges grow with the complexity of the intended design. In many cases, researchers are perplexed as to why certain structures self-assemble from a given set of elementary building blocks, as the theoretical foundations of these processes are still poorly understood.

To confront the problem, Sulc and colleagues have invented a clever color-coding system that manages to restrict the base pairings to only those appearing in the design blueprint for the final structure, with alternate base-pairings forbidden.

The process works through a custom-designed optimization algorithm, where the correct color code for self-assembly of the intended form produces the target structure at an energy minimum, while excluding competing structures.

Next, they put the system to work, using computers to design two crystal forms of great importance to the field of photonics: pyrochlore and cubic diamond. The authors note that this innovative method is applicable to any crystal structure. 

To apply their theoretical framework, Sulc has started a new collaboration with professors Hao Yan and Nick Stephanopoulos, his colleagues at Biodesign and the School of Molecular Sciences. Together, they aim to experimentally realize some of the structures that they were able to design in simulations.

“While the obvious application of our framework is in DNA nanotechnology, our approach is general, and can be also used, for example, to design self-assembled structures out of proteins,” Sulc said.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU