ACS Synthetic Biology and The American Institute of Chemical Engineers present the 2022 ACS Synthetic Biology Young Innovator Award, which recognizes an outstanding early career investigator conducting research in any area of synthetic biology.

Meet the Recipient

This year’s recipient is Dr. Neha P. Kamat at Northwestern University. Professor Kamat is being recognized for her creative research program focusing on self-assembled materials and responsive systems, her commitment to mentorship, and her leadership in diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives.

Dr. Neha P. Kamat is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern University. She obtained her B.S. in Bioengineering from Rice University in 2008. She then went on to earn her Ph.D. in Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012 with Professor Daniel Hammer. Dr. Kamat then joined the laboratory of Professor Jack Szostak at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was a NASA postdoctoral fellow.

The Kamat Lab’s interests lie in constructing minimal systems, or artificial cells, as a tool to understand and recreate certain cellular behaviors. The group uses emerging engineering methods in material science, biophysics, and synthetic biology to construct in vitro models of cellular membranes that can couple membrane biophysical processes to chemical and genetic processes, yielding new cellular mimetic biomaterials, capable of complex sensing, signaling, and responsive behaviors. In particular, the lab is interested in understanding the role of the bilayer membrane in mechanical force sensing and designing biosensors for environmental analytes. Dr. Kamat currently holds a Young Investigator Award from the Air Force Research Office and an NSF CAREER Award.

Learn more about Professor Kamat in this interview.

What does this award mean to you?

I’m extremely honored to receive this award, especially because the previous awardees are scientists I really admire. I also feel like I can officially call myself a synthetic biologist now. I come from a background in bioengineering primarily focused on biomaterials development. When I was a graduate student, I was aware of the exciting work that was being called synthetic biology. At the time, the field primarily involved engineering living cells. I knew it was an area I wanted to move into because there were techniques and approaches that I would be able to draw from in order to design biomaterials that “think” and “make decisions.” I think we and many others in the field have been able to start doing just that. Along these lines, I’ve been excited to see synthetic biology expand into and draw from many other disciplines, including materials science, electronics, computer science, among more. More and more people are calling themselves synthetic biologists, which is great for our field.

What are you working on now?

The work in my lab centers around the cell membrane. We typically build membranes from their component parts like lipids and proteins and then use these systems to recreate and then learn more about a biological process or to build new classes of materials and devices. For example, a biological process we are interested in understanding is membrane protein folding and function. We’d like to understand how changes in the lipid composition of a cell membrane impact how a protein folds and then functions. We also use membranes as a starting material to build artificial cell-like systems. Our goal here is to draw from the decision-making and biosensing capabilities in biological systems to design non-living particles that can perform many similar, if not better, functions as living cells. A primary focus for our group in the development of artificial cells is to build new kinds of biosensors that can move through water-rich environments like groundwater or the vasculature, and detect and report molecules of interest

How would you describe your research to someone outside your field of research?

The membrane is a beautiful structure that defines the boundary of our smallest unit of life, the cell. This is a structure that we think was floating around on its own on a primitive earth and that everything else we associate with life— the RNA, DNA, and peptides—came after. The membrane, in essence, likely seeded life by creating an environment where biochemical processes could be protected and concentrated. Yet we still know so little about this structure relative to RNA, DNA, and many proteins. The goal of my research is to take a closer look at lipid membranes and understand how the physical properties of these structures (how they stretch, bend, curve) affect the activity of embedded proteins. Then, we take the membrane as a starting material scaffold, and we add biological components (the DNA, RNA) that enable logic and decision-making capabilities and we design cell-like systems. Our hope on this side of things is to design a new and better class of materials that bridge advances in materials science with the functions only available in biology.

What do you think is the biggest challenge currently in your area of research?

We haven’t fully figured out how to tap into the power of membrane proteins in cell-free systems. Membrane proteins do so much in living cells- they are the primary responders to environmental signals, and they transport molecules, glycosylate proteins and lipids, they signal to other more soluble proteins, and have many more functions. How can we couple these activities effectively to cell-free systems? And then how do we multiplex their responses so we can integrate information from many different proteins?

Have there been any highlights in your career to date that you are especially proud of?

I have and continue to feel the greatest sense of achievement and pride when my students are recognized, whether it’s the publication of their first, first-author paper, receiving an award or fellowship, or hearing positive feedback from one of their committee members. Watching them develop into creative, thoughtful scientists and getting to be a part of that process has been unbelievably rewarding.

The first couple of papers from our group will also be something I will always remember. Just the sheer amount of work that goes into those – buying equipment and setting up a lab, recruiting and directly training your first few graduate students, working together to plan and perform experiments, and finally, writing up a manuscript. I’d add that seeing a particular idea or hypothesis come to fruition has also been exciting. My first Ph.D. student is wrapping up a study that we had started pursuing as a lab when she started and it’s exhilarating and gratifying to see how our hypothesis turned out to be right and also all the various ways we were quite wrong.

What would your advice be to someone just starting out in the field?

If you are new to a field, start with a project that allows you to bring your expertise in some way to that new space. This approach has often allowed me to bring something new to the table that I know about while learning about something entirely new. For example, one of the first projects we did in my lab was introducing synthetic, polymer-containing membranes into a cell-free reaction. And then be open to the weird results that mean something interesting is happening. We often think engineering is about building something and optimizing it, but there’s lots of room for discovery and fundamental science and in fact, the latter is critical to building truly innovative systems.

Finally, you can most often find a way to do the kind of research you want to do in a variety of places, but it’s most fun to do it in communities and environments where you feel welcome. I’ve been able to move into a more biophysics space as well as cell-free space because of the people around me. It’s one of the reasons I thought Northwestern was a great place for me to start my career. But I hadn’t considered the other parts of the job. I lucked into a supportive, collaborative environment and didn’t fully appreciate how important those components are until I was experiencing them. If I was at a different institution, I’m certain my research would have taken on a different flavor and that’s ok too. You can thrive when you have support around you so go where there are good people to work with, where the field or community seems open to new approaches and ideas, and you, and be open to the new avenues that this new community will introduce.

Explore Professor Kamat’s recently published articles in ACS Publications Journals.

The ACS Synthetic Biology Young Innovator Award 2022 recipient will present during the 2022 Synthetic Biology: Engineering, Evolution & Design (SEED) Meeting. Learn more about last year’s winner.

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