ASU professor awarded top research prize by Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

John Spence honored for X-ray laser applications to biology

November 24, 2020

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the prestigious Gregori Aminoff Crystallography Prize, one of the physics research community’s highest honors, to Arizona State University Regents Professor John Spence.

Spence and his colleagues Janos Hajdu from Uppsala University, Sweden, and Henry Chapman from Hamburg University and DESY laboratory in Germany, received the award in honor of their innovative work in the structural imaging of molecular mechanisms with powerful X-ray Free Electron Lasers (XFEL). Their work provided the foundation to see with near atomic precision molecular machines like biomolecules, a major advancement for the field of structural biology and its potential applications to improve drug targeting, pharmaceuticals and renewable energy. ASU Professor John Spence, winner of the 2020 Aminoff Prize ASU Regents Professor John Spence was awarded one of the physics research community’s highest honors, the prestigious Gregori Aminoff Crystallography Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Download Full Image

The project began under the guidance of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC laboratory, with the intent to come up with biological applications for X-ray lasers that were paired with the power of mile-long particle accelerators (BioXFEL). But first, they needed to overcome a formidable issue: the radiation power of large particle accelerators that was needed to see molecules at near-atomic scale often would quickly obliterate the delicate crystal samples before any data could be collected. Then, in 2000, Hajdu and Richard Neutze published a game-changing paper that theorized a way to not only record images of the mechanisms but also produce a movie showing them at work. 

Then, in 2006, experimental work led by Chapman proved for the first time that it was possible to “outrun” the radiation damage by using a very short pulse of the powerful X-ray beam. These femtosecond pulses are a quadrillionth of a second. Meanwhile in Arizona, Spence’s lab was building a device for sample delivery as well as crystallographic, data-deciphering algorithms. Despite the project being high risk at the time, the appeal was undeniable as Chapman’s experiments showed potential. The complexities of the project were also clear early on, such as the X-ray laser’s instability and the sample injection device clogging like a toothpaste tube left open on a bathroom countertop. 

Finally, in 2009, after almost a decade buildup, the first success came to everyone’s relief.

“Lasing is a thing that happens or doesn’t,” Spence said. “As they say, you can’t be half-pregnant.”

And just like a child, it took a village to raise — there were over 70 authors on their first major research publication.

Spence insists that the personal chemistry among the scientists was a vital aspect of the project’s success, noting that there was “a good blend of personalities. Everyone wanted to see it succeed.”

His team consisted of professors Petra Fromme, Uwe Weierstall, Rick Kirian, Alex Ros, Brenda Hogue and Bruce Doak. Fromme created the microcrystals that led to the first success of the project. Doak, Weierstall and Spence were then able to extend the recording time for the images. Weierstall built the first sample delivery device for the microcrystals, which was further refined by Doak. The chemistry of the ASU BioXFEL team even extended outside the lab — with the formation of a bossa-nova band that recorded an album and performed at the yearly BioXFEL conference.

In 2013, they secured $50 million in funding from the National Science Foundation to be dispersed over the next decade to form a seven-university BioXFEL Science and Technology Consortium. This funding gave the team the opportunity to focus on diseases that have evolved to evade the effects of antibiotics, and to make movies of proteins in action. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has directed the project to prioritize coronavirus studies with SARS virology expert Hogue.

“It is very gratifying to see his work recognized with the Aminoff prize," said Peter Bennett, department chair and professor for the ASU Department of Physics." The methods invented by Spence and his co-workers have already had a revolutionary impact by revealing the structures of a whole new set of biomolecules that were previously inaccessible.” 

Spence joins the ranks of Regents Professor Emeritus Michael O’Keeffe as the only other ASU Aminoff Prize winner (in 2017).

With the BioXFEL grant expiring in 2023, Spence has been looking toward shaping the legacy of the project. And ASU is currently building its own compact version of the BioXFEL laser, or CXFEL, under the supervision of Spence as well as professors Bill Graves and Robert Kaindl. He plans to preserve his own legacy through his continued passion for teaching and writing, especially after the publication of his recent post-sabbatical history of science book “Lightspeed: The Ghostly Aether and the Race to Measure the Speed of Light,” published in 2019.

Written by Hannah Weisman, assistant science writer, ASU Media Relations

Fueling curiosity by making information available to a more diverse audience

November 24, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Scientific research doesn’t come in layman’s terms. It’s up to science communicators to take that research and break it down into something that everyone can understand. Maddie Arnold sees the importance of that role. That’s why she got involved in science communication. She wanted to make information more accessible to the public. Photo of Maddie Arnold Maddie Arnold. Download Full Image

“Science fuels the curiosity that connects us all and is a fundamental element of humanity,” said Arnold. “Research is often publicly funded, and people deserve to understand the research to which they contribute. I realized that in order to write about that research, I should learn more about the research process.”

Arnold is doing just that and becoming more well-versed in telling stories about research by earning a Bachelor of Science in innovation in society from the School for the Future of Innovation in the College of Global Futures

“Innovation in society is a new field to academic study by name, but the core elements of the program overlap with my values and interests. The idea behind the program is to link social concerns with science and technology. Making education and information available to a more diverse audience is critical to solving complex problems, so I knew that this program would allow me to grow in that thought process.”

Her desire to share information also drew her to journalism. Along with her bachelor’s degree in innovation in society, Arnold is earning a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is also a part of Barrett, The Honors College, and received the Edward J. Sylvester Memorial Scholarship in Science Writing and the Phoenix Press Club Foundation Fund. Arnold has already put the skills she learned in science communication to work as a Pathways Program intern at NASA.

“I worked in the Office of Communication for the social media team. I’ve had the opportunity to write stories, produce videos and lead social media campaigns about a variety of science topics. My favorite projects have been working on NASA’s Curious Universe podcast and leading an outreach campaign for International Observe the Moon Night.”

Arnold will now continue her work with NASA after she graduates, joining the social media team full-time at NASA Goddard. 

“I’m over the moon to continue my work with NASA and keep bringing space science research to the public in an accessible way. I'm grateful for the opportunities provided to me by ASU and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society to allow me to see different perspectives and to help me find my place in the world as I start my career.”

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I was accepted into the Next Generation Service Corps (NGSC), a program at ASU that allows students to pair their major with a world issue and train in cross-sector collaboration and leadership to make an impact on that issue throughout their college experience. I’ve been working on impacting education inequality through my innovation in society and journalism studies. I’ve learned so much through my time in NGSC and am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the program. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: In May of 2018, I traveled to Samoa with the SolarSPELL initiative. I helped collect monitoring and evaluation interviews from Peace Corps volunteers and helped train those volunteers and local teachers on how to use the SolarSPELL digital library. What this has accomplished is amazing. It has brought accessible, localized education to resource-constrained areas of the world while helping build digital literacy skills. Associate Professor Laura Hosman and Bruce Baikie, SolarSPELL’s co-founders, changed my perspective with how they were flexible and innovative at every turn. Traveling to Samoa and similar countries with students and implementing new technology in a different culture can be challenging. Watching my mentors handle every challenge with grace and strategy was incredible.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: There are no words to express how grateful I am for Clinical Associate Professor Mary Jane  Parmentier and Associate Professor Laura Hosman. Professor Parmentier taught me to slow down, be patient with myself and celebrate small feats, and Professor Hosman taught me that everyone is capable of providing value.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Always take the chance, even if you don’t think you’re qualified. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Overcommitting yourself does not make you stronger or more capable.

Ashley Richards

Communications Specialist , School for the Future of Innovation in Society