ASU professor will develop new computer modeling framework for bio-nanotechnology with NSF CAREER award

Petr Šulc is designing molecules with promising new applications including diagnostics, therapeutics and new materials

January 25, 2023

Petr Šulc, an assistant professor at Arizona State University's School of Molecular Sciences and the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, has recently earned a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

Šulc's lab is highly interdisciplinary and applies broadly the methods of statistical physics and computational modeling to problems in chemistry, biology and nanotechnology. The group develops new multiscale models to study interactions between biomolecules, particularly in the context of design and simulations of DNA and RNA nanostructures and devices. Petr Šulc smiling at the camera and sitting at an office desk with a computer and papers surrounding him. Petr Šulc is an assistant professor at Arizona State University's School of Molecular Sciences and the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics. Photo courtesy ASU Download Full Image

“This research award will allow our lab to expand the scope of systems that we study and allow us to design a new class of nanodevices and nanomaterials that incorporate DNA, RNA and proteins, as well as other molecules,” explained Šulc. “Just as complex machines in our everyday use — planes, cars and chips in electronics — require sophisticated computer-aided design tools to make sure they perform a desired function, there is a pressing need to have access to such methods in the molecular sciences.”

Professor Tijana Rajh, director of the School of Molecular Sciences, said, “Petr Šulc and his group are doing extremely innovative molecular science, using the methods of computational chemistry and physics to study DNA and RNA molecules in the context of biology as well as nanotechnology. Our younger faculty members in the School of Molecular Sciences have an extraordinary record of achievement, and Professor Šulc is an exemplar in this regard.”

The prestigious CAREER program supports the early career development activities of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the mission of their organization. It provides five-year research grants to each recipient.


DNA and RNA are the basic molecules of life. They fulfill many functions, including information storage and information transfer in living cells. They also have promising applications in the field of nanotechnology where designed DNA and RNA strands are used to assemble nanoscale structures and devices. As Šulc explains, “It is a little bit like playing with Lego blocks except that each Lego block is only a few nanometers (a millionth of a millimeter) in size, and instead of putting each block into the place where it should go, you put them inside a box and shake it randomly until only the desired structure comes out.”

This process is called self-assembly, and Šulc and his colleagues use computational modeling and design software to come up with the building blocks that reliably assemble into the shape one wants at nanoscale resolution.

“The promising applications of this field include diagnostics, therapeutics and building of new materials,” says Šulc. “My lab has developed the software to design these blocks, and we work closely with experimental groups at ASU as well as other universities in the U.S. and Europe. “

They are also interested in the application of machine learning methods to biological sequence ensembles and use neural networks to design DNA or RNA sequences that will specifically bind to a target protein of interest, such as the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.


The challenges

Computer-aided design software is often used in our macroscale world to design computer chips, cars and planes so that the device operation can initially be tested and optimized in simulation. Construction at the nanoscale, however, presents multiple challenges. As opposed to our macroworld, nanostructures are typically obtained by self-assembly, where individual components randomly diffuse until they meet and assemble into a target structure.

In order to obtain more complex structures that will self-assemble in high yields, there is a need for a new simulation framework that can efficiently and, at the same time, accurately represent the assembly and function of the nanostructures.

Šulc’s lab will develop a new modeling framework that is capable of simulating self-assembled DNA nanostructures. 

The research team will use this new framework to optimize nanostructure assembly for high yield and computationally design new types of reconfigurable nanostructures. Next, the team will extend the modeling platform to allow for the incorporation of other organic/inorganic molecules and materials.

Overall, this award will facilitate the creation of new nanodevices capable of performing complex tasks that would be difficult to realize experimentally without a sophisticated modeling platform. It will bring the field closer to large-scale industrial applications.

To realize the education component of the project, Šulc’s lab will develop new learning opportunities for university students and the general public. The main effort will involve developing an online citizen-science platform, where users can use the simulation platform to design and optimize structures themselves, enabling crowdsourcing of nanotechnology designs.

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences


Art inspired by an asteroid

School of Arts, Media and Engineering Fabrication Lab student worker selected to participate in ASU Psyche Inspired program

January 25, 2023

Arizona State University sophomore Alyssa Armstrong considers herself lucky to have discovered the School of Arts, Media and Engineering Fabrication Lab while she was only a freshman.

“Fascinated by the programming tools” made available by the so-called Fab Lab, the mechanical engineering major and studio art minor jumped at the chance to begin working there, quickly becoming familiar with processes like 3D printing and laser cutting. Portrait of ASU sophomore Alyssa Armstrong. ASU sophomore Alyssa Armstrong was selected to intern with ASU's Psyche Inspired program alongside a team of students who will use art to inform the public about a special asteroid in our solar system named Psyche. Photo courtesy Alyssa Armstrong

Recently, Armstrong was selected to intern with ASU's Psyche Inspired program alongside a team of students who will use art to inform the public about a special asteroid in our solar system named Psyche.

Armstrong credits the knowledge and experience she gained at the Fab Lab, especially the opportunity to collaborate with fellow student workers and ASU staff members Dan Jackson, Caroline Fernandez and Pete Weisman, with helping her secure the internship.

“They were always available to answer questions that I had and guided me through the process,” she said. “Teamwork plays a big part of the work in the Fab Lab; since everyone comes with different skills and backgrounds, we learn from each other’s strengths.”

Armstrong is enthusiastic about the Psyche Inspired program and recently took some time to share how working as a part of the Arts, Media and Engineering Fab Lab team has been informative to the work she does within the program.

Question: When did you start working in the Fab Lab?

Answer: It was my first semester as a freshman in fall of 2021. As an engineering major, I wanted more hands-on experience and had a desire to learn about three-dimensional modeling and computer-aided design, so I enrolled in ART 218: 3D Tools. I attended workshops offered in the Fab Lab and I was fascinated by the programming tools one can use to manipulate 3D objects, and began working more in the space on projects. Another student worker in the lab then asked if I would be interested in working there, and I was thrilled. I applied as a student worker and began working soon after.

Q: What is something you’ve achieved while working at the Fab Lab that has prepared you for your internship with the Psyche Inspired program?

A: The 3D printers we use had a generic programming code loaded onto their system that wasn’t specific to how they function. I was able to customize the programming code to be specific to the Fab Lab printers, which helped overcome some of the problems we were encountering with the technology.

Q: How else has the hands-on experience available at the Fab Lab been helpful?

A: When it comes to engineering and design, having this knowledge is crucial; the hands-on experience helps. The tools available at the Fab Lab (such as 3D printing, laser cutting and woodwork) have helped me see how to bring various components of a project together for design and engineering. I have learned that it is vital to design to consider elements like who will be using the product, how they will be used and what material should be used to meet the needs of the functionality of the final product.

Q: Which tools did you use for the works of art that supported your application for the Psyche Inspired program?

A: When you’re applying for Psyche Inspired, they ask for images of three artworks. I shared two digital paintings and a laser-cut journal that was made in the Fab Lab. With laser cutting, ideas can come to life as long as you have the skills and access to them. I used Adobe Illustrator to design the file that the laser cutter would use to print and cut the material. I would not have been able to produce these things if I didn’t have access to these tools.

Q: What does your internship with the NASA Psyche Inspired program entail?

A: We learn about the Psyche mission and make artwork inspired by the mission so more people know about it. We also discuss possible ways that we can help inform the public about the mission.

Q: What have you learned about the Psyche mission that you expect to inform the artwork you create?

A: The spacecraft that will go to the asteroid will be using various sensors to send back data, like what it is made out of and information about its magnetic field. I met with Dr. Rona Oran, who was working on models of Psyche’s magnetic field, and noticed that some of the diagrams showed magnetic fields all over the place. I asked, ‘Why are there multiple fields? Is it possible for Psyche to have multiple poles?’ Dr. Oran explained to me that when Psyche was once a small object, it was impacted by other objects, and if the core of Psyche was still hot during the impacts, this would cause a magnetic field that is mixed up. If Psyche does have a magnetic field, it is a sign that this asteroid could have once been a planet. Readings of the light reflected off the asteroid will give us information about what metals the object is made of. Since Psyche is metal, this leads us to believe it could have potentially been a core of a larger planet.

Q: What has been your biggest takeaway from working in the Fab Lab and being a part of the Psyche Inspired internship team?

A: Engineering is problem-solving at its core — the big thing about it is determination and to keep going until you find a solution that is going to work. Go through the design and brainstorm processes over and over until you get it right.

Armstrong is scheduled to graduate in 2025 with a BSE in mechanical engineering from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and a minor in studio art from the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts’ School of Art. The Psyche Inspired program showcases artwork made by interns throughout the year. For more information about the program and the mission, visit

Shane Davis

Multimedia Specialist, School of Arts, Media and Engineering