School of Molecular Sciences welcomes 7 new interdisciplinary faculty

September 7, 2023

The establishment of Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences in 2015 was an important step in that it was the first public declaration by any department of chemistry or biochemistry in the U.S. that a focus purely on the academic disciplines of those subjects was no longer consistent with societal demands for scientific enterprise in the 21st century.

The school is not discipline-focused but has a mission of addressing societal problems from an atomic and molecular perspective, and advancing research and discovery of public value in accord with the ASU Charter Collage of portraits of new ASU School of Molecular Sciences faculty. Top row, from left: Jason Khoury, Di Liu, Alberto Rascon and Caitlin Sample. Bottom row, from left: Yoan Simon, Mouzhe Xie and Damanveer Grewal. Download Full Image

In support of this mission, the School of Molecular Sciences recently welcomed seven new faculty who exemplify this approach and use atomic- and molecular-level thinking to work on important problems that historically would not be considered mainstream chemistry or biochemistry.

The research areas being pioneered by all these new faculty are more than just interdisciplinary. In many ways, they represent a post-disciplinary approach to research, one that is based on the mission of solving societal problems rather than being connected to any specific discipline.

Meet the new School of Molecular Sciences faculty:

Assistant Professor Jason Khoury, who started in the School of Molecular Sciences this semester, went to graduate school at Northwestern University, where he received his PhD in chemistry in 2020 working with Mercouri G. Kanatzidis.

As a graduate student, Khoury started a new research direction in the Kanatzidis group, focusing on the synthesis and reactivity of subchalcogenide materials, which have bonding characteristics similar to both intermetallics and chalcogenides. He was the recipient of the Hierarchical Materials Cluster Fellowship in 2017 and the Marple-Schweitzer graduate student award in 2018.

After completing his PhD, Khoury was an Arnold O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University from 2020–23, working with Leslie M. Schoop. His postdoctoral work focused on understanding electron-rich bonding motifs as a design principle for quasi-one-dimensional topological materials.

His current work at ASU is on the interface between synthetic solid-state chemistry and condensed matter physics, utilizing materials discovery and chemical bonding approaches to understand trends in quantum materials with strongly interacting electrons.

Assistant Professor Di Liu started this semester in the School of Molecular Sciences. He earned his Bachelor of Science in chemistry at Nanjing University, where he worked under the direction of Professor Zijian Guo to synthesize photoactivatable platinum-based anticancer drugs.

In 2011, he embarked on his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, where he worked with Yossi Weizmann on synthetic nucleic acid topologies and RNA nanostructures. During his PhD study, Liu was supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Predoctoral Fellowship.

In 2017, Liu started his postdoctoral research in Peng Yin’s lab at Harvard University as a Merck Fellow of the Life Sciences Research Foundation. His research at Harvard primarily focused on increasing the complexity of self-assembled RNA nanostructures and resolving RNA structures using cryo-EM.

Liu has also joined the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics. Currently, his research revolves around employing nanoarchitectural approaches based on the programmability of nucleic acid molecules to study DNA topology, solve RNA structures and enhance the efficacy of RNA-based therapeutics.

Associate Professor Alberto Rascon started this semester at the School of Molecular Sciences, joining ASU from San José State University (SJSU), where his research program focused specifically on Aedes aegypti mosquito midgut proteases. During his tenure there, Rascon was involved as a mentor in the California State University Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (CSU‐LSAMP) program, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, and the NIH Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program, also serving as a co-coordinator for seven years.

Before departing SJSU, Rascon helped in establishing the new U-RISE (T34) training program as co-principal investigator to ensure continued training of underrepresented minority (URM) students in the biomedical sciences. Rascon is a first-generation URM student, earning a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from California State University, Bakersfield in 2002 and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Arizona (under the supervision of Roger L. Miesfeld), where he first worked on the Ae. aegypti mosquito.

After his graduate studies, Rascon joined the lab of Dr. James H. McKerrow as an NIH Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA) Scholar focusing on enzymes from human parasitic worms and proteases from human amoeba parasites. Currently, the overarching goal of his research is to delineate the biological functions and physiological substrates of Ae. aegypti proteases involved in midgut bloodmeal protein digestion, salivary gland tissues and eggshell melanization, as well as determine viral pathogen-host protease interactions in the mosquito.

Assistant Professor Caitlin Sample started this semester in the School of Molecular Sciences and the Center for Sustainable Macromolecular Materials and Manufacturing in the Biodesign Institute at ASU. An Arizona native, Sample received a joint Bachelor of Science in materials science and applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014, where her interest in designing polymeric materials was sparked by the complex functions of natural systems.

Sample developed her synthetic expertise across length scales, from small-molecule organic semiconductors to 3D-printed polymer networks, as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she earned her PhD in materials in 2020 under the supervision of Craig Hawker and Christopher Bates.

Following her graduate work, Sample was a postdoctoral researcher in the group of Marc Hillmyer at the University of Minnesota. Her work at Minnesota centered on the green synthesis of polymers for applications in sustainability, including recycling processes and separation technologies. Her work at ASU focuses on the molecular design of high-performance polymers with reduced environmental impacts from synthesis to end-of-life.

Associate Professor Yoan Simon will join the School of Molecular Sciences in January 2024. He will also be part of the Biodesign Center for Sustainable Macromolecular Materials and Manufacturing. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the National School of Chemistry Montpellier (École nationale supérieure de chimie de Montpellier). His first contact with research was in the labs of Bernard Boutevin, where he learned about controlled radical polymerization.

He then moved to Massachusetts and started a PhD in polymer science and engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst under the guidance of E. Bryan Coughlin, working on hybrid organic/inorganic materials.

“The new scientific frontier is at the interface of multiple scientific disciplines, and I cannot wait to join the rich array of expertise at ASU to tackle some of the most pressing issues in terms of sustainability and manufacturing,” Simon said. “I think all the ingredients are there to make ASU a leader in the field.”

Trained as a chemist, Simon’s research straddles synthetic organic chemistry, materials science, chemical engineering and energy research.

“That’s what I love about polymer science: its inherent multidisciplinarity and applicability to just about everything. But that’s also wherein the problem lies. We have been using polymers in all facets of our everyday life without thinking about their circularity or end-of-life. I believe that’s why (the Biodesign Center for Sustainable Macromolecular Materials and Manufacturing) is in a unique proposition to upend this paradigm and train the next generation of macromolecular scientists and engineers," he said.

Capitalizing on his expertise in light-responsive and supramolecular systems, Simon is excited to leverage access to world-class facilities and the breadth of ongoing research across ASU's various campuses.

Assistant Professor Mouzhe Xie started this semester in the School of Molecular Sciences. He received a Bachelor of Science in chemical biology from Xiamen University, China, in 2013. From 2013–18, Xie conducted PhD research in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at The Ohio State University with Rafael Brüschweiler.

Availing himself of the Campus Chemical Instrument Center - NMR facility (now the National Gateway Ultrahigh Field NMR Center), he developed and applied NMR spectroscopy and spin control techniques to investigate topics ranging from biophysics to protein dynamics, structural biology and metabolomics.

From 2019–23, Xie did his postdoctoral research, first in the laboratory of Peter Maurer at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, and later at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. During this time, he expanded his expertise in NMR and biophysics to develop diamond-based quantum sensing technology for chemical and biological applications, as well as worked extensively on diamond material engineering. The integration of these technologies will lead to novel sensing platforms for molecular analytics, drug discovery and disease diagnosis, and ultimately reshape the landscape of health care for the better.

Assistant Professor Damanveer Grewal will be joining the School of Molecular Sciences in January 2024 with a joint appointment in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and as a part of the Facility for Open Research in a Compressed Environment and the Navrotsky-Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe.

Grewal received his integrated Bachelor and Master of Science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, in 2012. In December 2021, he received his PhD in experimental cosmochemistry from Rice University, Houston, where he worked with Rajdeep Dasgupta.

At Rice, Grewal's research was focused on using high pressure-temperature experiments to better understand the origin of life-essential volatiles like nitrogen and carbon in the rocky bodies of the inner solar system. His PhD was supported by the Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINNEST) program and the Lodieska Stockbridge Vaughn Fellowship.

Grewal moved to the California Institute of Technology in January 2022 to work with Paul Asimow as a Barr Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. His postdoctoral work, which was also supported by the Caltech Center for Comparative Planetary Evolution, focused on using meteorites to understand the cosmochemical and astrophysical processes in the early solar system. His work at ASU is on the interface between cosmochemistry, geochemistry, planetary and exoplanetary science, utilizing state-of-the-art high-pressure experimental facilities at the Facility for Open Research in a Compressed Environment to understand the formation of habitable worlds in our solar system and beyond.

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences


ASU anthropology alumna chosen for distinguished Yale internship

September 8, 2023

A passion for soccer brought her from Lima, Peru, to the United States and Arizona State University. Now, Stefania Becerra Lavado’s ambition to study anthropology and culture is taking her to Yale University for a yearlong paid internship. 

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would end up going to New Haven this year,” said Becerra Lavado, who graduated from ASU this summer with a degree in anthropology and a minor in global health from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change ASU alum Stefania Becerra Lavado wearing a maroon cap and gown and holding the Peru flag on the steps of ASU's Old Main building. Stefania Becerra Lavado holding the Peru flag on the steps of Old Main on ASU's Tempe campus. Photo courtesy Stefania Becerra Lavado Download Full Image

Becerra Lavado is one of two students chosen for the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) internship at Yale. HRAF is an internationally known nonprofit organization focusing on cultural anthropology. The internship was established in honor of Melvin Ember, the former president of HRAF. Interns of the program work with leading world expert Carol Ember and the extensive HRAF database, where they will read, summarize and analyze cross-cultural research. 

Becerra Lavado said the courses and internships she took during her time at ASU helped shape her dedication to anthropology and global health. 

She also participated in a research apprenticeship in the Inclusive Human Learning Lab with Professor Daniel Hruschka, added a global health minor after a course with Associate Professor Robin Nelson and took courses from President’s Professor Amber Wutich, who was mentored by the Embers and teaches in the NSF-HRAF Summer Institutes for Cross-Cultural Anthropological Research (led by Carol). 

“I have mentored Stefania’s work in several domains: as a graduate student in my course on global mental health, as an ambitious and engaged student in our MA program, and as an undergraduate student in my disasters course,” Wutich said. “In all of these experiences, Stefania stands out among her classmates for her intellectual curiosity and her commitment to carving her own unique path in research.”

Becerra Lavado decided to pause her master’s studies for the opportunity at Yale, something she says will help in her future. 

“I want to make this experience the best one so far and use all of this newfound knowledge to pursue my own cross-cultural research in the near future," she said. "I have so many goals set in mind. I am sure this internship will help me get closer to becoming a better anthropologist and fulfill my biggest dream: to share these experiences and knowledge in my native country, Peru.”

Peru to ASU

Stefania Becerra Lavado

Stefania Becerra Lavado came from Peru to the U.S. to play soccer. Photo courtesy Stefania Becerra Lavado

Becerra Lavado started playing soccer when she was 12 years old, older than most children who play in Peru, she said. However, she quickly realized she loved the game. As a teenager, she started playing for a club and was chosen to train for the under-17 Peruvian women’s national football team

She left Peru in 2019 when she was offered a junior college scholarship for soccer. Missing her family and home, she returned to Peru after two years. After encouragement from her grandmother, Becerra Lavado applied to universities in the U.S. again. She was accepted into five universities but decided Arizona State University was the best. 

“ASU has a great anthropology program, and the faculty’s research looked very interesting,” Becerra Lavado said. “But the main reason I chose Arizona was the high percentage of the Hispanic population. In my first two years at junior college, I lived in an area without many Spanish-speaking people, which was tough for me. I am so grateful for choosing ASU because I always felt represented at school. Most of my closest friends were born in Latin America or had parents from there.

“The diversity at ASU is something I will always treasure because it allowed me to speak my language literally every day and made my transition so much easier. “

Becerra Lavado plans to continue to pursue a PhD in anthropology after her internship at Yale. She will focus her research on medical and linguistic anthropology. 

“Living in the capital of Peru and later on migrating to the U.S. to pursue my bachelor’s degree, I realize how much it can impact someone’s health if they speak the predominant language,” Becerra Lavado said. “I want to focus my research on expanding medical and educational services to communities that do not speak the predominant language, mainly Indigenous languages, such as Quechua in Peru.”

During her time at ASU, Becerra Lavado participated in the ASU Women’s Soccer Club and played in the Arizona Women’s Soccer League. She was a member of the Latino/Chicano/Hispanic student organization El Concilio, was an international student ambassador, participated in several internships and worked at The International Students and Scholars Center. She also took Japanese courses and was awarded first place in the 2023 Arizona Japanese Speech Contest, representing ASU.

Nicole Pomerantz

Communications specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change