Building a Community of Molecular, Cellular and Computational Minds
The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology’s evolution will emphasize society-impacting research, cutting-edge technology and diverse career pathways.
As COVID-19 continues to fundamentally reshape the landscape of higher education, Woo Lee, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (CCB) at Stevens believes it also highlights new opportunities to explore the department’s mission and its importance to society at large.
“This department is a community of internationally recognized interdisciplinary faculty and outstanding students. The pandemic is providing us with a historic occasion to reflect on our legacy of research excellence and harness our interdisciplinary expertise at the interface between chemical and biological sciences,” Lee said. “We are well-poised to forge a new direction for the future of our academic unit, one which will intellectually enrich the Stevens community.”
This understanding, further emphasized by the pandemic, was top of mind for Lee when he became the department chair last year, and immediately set to work with the faculty to build a new vision for the department. That included the development of their first ever five-year strategic plan, which lays out the future of CCB –– including creating a board of external advisors made up of prominent leaders in biotechnology, dentistry, education and medicine; how the department will prioritize exposure to the diverse career pathways available to technology-savvy students upon graduation by building it into the curriculum from day one; and creating new knowledge that will impact our society through research.
A research community of molecular, cellular and computational minds
Historically, the department’s research interests have been focused on polymer chemistry and drug discovery. In the spirit of Stevens’ value “technology at our core,” Lee envisions a direction that synergizes the department's current research strength in drug discovery with the rapidly emerging field of precision medicine –– a major initiative which has already begun with the additions of professors and cancer biologists Marcin Iwanicki and Ansu Parekatt, and Lee, a “tumor-on-chip” expert. Their research effort is aimed at building more accurate disease models to understand therapy-evading mechanisms of cancer and find patient-specific therapeutic targets.
The implementation of the strategic plan is off to an enthusiastic start. Between drug discovery and precision medicine, faculty members in the department (James Liang, Marcin Iwanicki, Abishek Sharma, and Yong Zhang) have won seven National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation grants for a total of $4.2M in research funding over the past year.
Ultimately, Lee sees an opportunity for CCB to shape up the biomedical research landscape at Stevens by finding and expanding on the "synergistic points" with institutional research focus areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum science.
To facilitate this, the department plans to focus on hiring new faculty members in computational chemistry and biology over the next two years. They also want to create two endowed chair positions over the next five years: one in computational chemistry and the other in computational biology. Lee believes these new hires and positions can fuse a community of researchers at Stevens, as he sees a clear passage to the use of artificial intelligence, data science and machine learning for drug discovery and precision medicine.
“Synergizing the research areas allows us to show the ways we are interconnected and can be very impactful to our society,” added Patricia Muisener, teaching associate professor and Associate Chair of Undergraduate and Graduate Studies. “Molecular, cellular and computational sciences — there is a circular interconnection among all three of these areas.”
Ultimately, the strategic plan’s vision statement said it best: “The CCB department will be a community of researchers with molecular, cellular and computational minds, dedicated to educating the next generation of science leaders and innovators exploring transformative scientific ideas for global impact.”
A reinvigorated undergraduate curriculum
One of the major initiatives in the strategic plan includes revitalizing and strengthening the department’s educational resources, program offerings and teaching labs, while determining how to leverage technology to diversify and enhance the student learning experience.
The new undergraduate curricula for chemistry, chemical biology, and biology programs will focus on being more technology-based, with potential for growth in areas like drug screening, computational chemistry, computational biology, tumor models, gene editing and AI. Lee sees the department as a bridge between science, engineering, technology and medicine.
“One area we want to attract is computational—both chemistry and biology,” Lee said. “We are currently very strong in computational chemistry because of Professor Yong Zhang, who's actually developing new computational methodologies.”
Another crucial component to reinvigorating the undergraduate curricula will be to bring in a contemporary societal context. With such relevant areas as COVID-19 research, antibiotic resistance, cancer treatment, sustainability and more, there are multiple levels of technology the department hopes to introduce to students.
“As our vision statement says, we want our students to be the leaders and innovators; we want to create and develop leaders who provide really innovative contributions to their field,” Muisener said. “Our goal is to educate and produce professionals –– which includes research scientists, doctors, dentists, physicians assistants, etc. –– who really make significant contributions to our society.”
Muisener envisions training biomedical scientists who could significantly contribute to the current or future pandemics as public health experts, or someone who could revolutionize how the food chain is controlled. She believes that bringing aspects of innovation and technology into the curriculum and infusing this training into the science experience will open up the potential for entrepreneurial thinking.
“At Stevens, we encourage our students to have an entrepreneurial mindset, and we aspire our students in the CCB department to develop that thinking and maybe use gene editing technology to do something really cool,” added Kenny Wong, teaching associate professor and biology program director. “We recently started an initiative to incorporate the CRISPR-Cas technology into our classrooms, which received the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic.”
CRISPR-Cas9, which is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9, is a recently developed approach to genome editing, a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism's DNA. These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed or altered at particular locations in the genome.
The CRISPR-Cas9 system has generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community because it is faster, cheaper, more accurate and more efficient than other existing genome editing methods.
“What is amazing is that through the efforts of many entrepreneurial thinking scientists, this technology is being applied to the rapid COVID testing. This is a fantastic example of basic science translating into societal impact,” explained Wong. “We want our students to learn from these scientists both from reading their scientific papers and doing their science.”
To this end, the department has modernized the undergraduate and graduate biology lab syllabi to incorporate the CRISPR-Cas technology. To augment that learning experience, the lab is piloting a virtual reality class around the gene-editing technology in the cell biology lab.
Wong himself worked at Merck for 21 years and has led large research teams. “At Merck we were trained to direct our science to make an impact for the patient. We want our students to have the same mindset in their research, i.e., societal impact.”
Diversifying career pathways
Historically, the department’s undergraduate curriculum was geared toward preparing students to pursue medical and dental schools — or to acquire jobs in biotechnology or the pharmaceutical industry. But these are competitive career paths and realistically, not everyone wants to follow this path upon graduation.
“We want to make the science curriculum more flexible, and more focused,” Wong said. “As well as guide students by asking, ‘what is your passion?’ And ‘what do you like to do?’”
Muisener and Wong have both stressed the importance of what the department calls “diverse pathways.”
“We want to project to students that even if they don’t choose to go to medical school, they can still be in the business of healthcare. For instance, if they took relevant engineering-oriented courses alongside their major courses, they could go to device companies,” Wong said. “Or maybe they feel pressured to go to medical school. But there are many interesting options—for example, due to COVID-19, we recognize how important public health is, right? We want to look beyond medicine; the broader phrase to use is ‘pre-health.’ We want to show them there are really various career pathways they can pursue, depending on their passion.”
New research spine fuses discovery with education
The third exciting component of the innovation of undergraduate curriculum is the development and implementation of the research spine, a defining foundation of Stevens science programs. The research spine provides students with research exposure and experience from the first day through graduation. Not only will this equip students with the skills they need to be deep and life-long learners, it also provides built-in leadership opportunities.
Additionally, the development of critical soft skills necessary for young scientists to succeed on the job will be embedded into the projects and course work. For example, future projects will often involve teams of students from diverse disciplines who have to work together to solve problems – exactly as they would in real-world biomedical research, industrial and healthcare settings.
“The research spine will further prepare the students for career paths that would also include clinical research,” Muisener said. “We want our students to acquire the specific skills necessary to allow them to follow and be successful and innovative in the career path they choose whether in industry, healthcare, academia, etc.”
As the department brainstorms how to reinvigorate the undergraduate curricula by homing in on human attributes, they plan to build in leadership aspects for both innovation and teaming. Wong believes that giving students the opportunity to lead provides a culture of innovation, and working in teams exposes students to multiple perspectives, which helps reinforce inclusive culture.
Graduate programs also get a makeover
In addition to an updated undergraduate curriculum, master’s programs are also being improved to serve the needs of today’s industry.
Muisener described the refinement and development of graduate certificate programs as a tool to further allow students of all levels to specialize and diversify their educational experience.
“We’re encouraging master’s students to choose electives that would apply toward a graduate certificate in either drug discovery, computational chemistry, biology, or analytical chemistry,” stated Muisener. “Undergraduates have the option of completing the accelerated master’s program, so they could also focus on obtaining one of the certificates via their chosen electives.”
For Ph.D. students, the department plans to provide more competitive research training by fostering collaboration at the intersection between molecular, cellular, and computational research clusters. With support and encouragement from Dean Jean Zu of the School of Engineering and Science, CCB is leading the development and establishment of shared biomedical research facilities for molecular analysis and cell imaging.to enhance doctoral student research experience and the competitiveness of our faculty research.
Executive and student advisory boards
Another key ingredient for the department’s future success is tapping existing students, alumni, and industry partners to join the department in various advisory and mentoring roles to help steer the strategy and offer industry connections and other career-building opportunities.
CCB inaugurated an external advisory board made up of prominent industry leaders and alumni. These members from diverse fields will help expose students to a broad range of potential career options.
Dr. Lance Richard Bruck, Vice President and Chairman of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Women’s Health at Jersey City Medical Center/RWJ Barnabas Health, is a key member of the new external advisory board who will play a significant role in strengthening the university’s pre-health program.
“The Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Women’s Health, under my leadership, and CCB, under Dr. Lee’s leadership, developed and finalized an institutional agreement to have pre-health students spend a month rotating in the hospital with direct exposure to clinical, research and operational activities,” Bruck said. “Our goal is to have these students continue to interface with the department throughout the remainder of their undergraduate studies in order to assist them in building the strongest resume in which to apply to professional schools for healthcare study.”
Broader community commitment for the future
In a recently published positional paper, the American Chemical Society stated, “Hands-on laboratory science experiences are critical to the learning process across all areas of study.”
But to provide a realistic environment for students to experience real-world scientific research, there must be robust financial support. Today, it costs approximately $1,000 per student, per semester to support the student research experience at Stevens. The 2021 freshman class in the department is more than 50 students.
“A strong research experience is a lot more expensive than providing an engineering design experience, because the faculty have to be more involved. And usually, there are more lab components and skill sets that need practice to perfect,” Wong said. “You are dealing with living things and sometimes they don’t cooperate, so the students learn the important lesson of failure.”
To further support this effort, Wong led an initiative to help the department establish a gifting fund –– and it has already raised almost $30,000.
“We hope as we share our departmental vision and our passion to train the next generation of biomedical scientists we can develop an external community that will partner with us through this gifting fund,” said Wong. “Having the funding to support the faculty in providing a strong research experience for the student body will be highly impactful as our students enter our society with a computational, molecular and/or cellular mindset.”
For this reason, Wong and Lee said, “We will be reaching out to 1,400 CCB alumni for their support, not just in a financial sense, but for advising and mentoring students to their full potential in the various fields of biomedical sciences.”
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