|Chava Angell in science communicator-action at the inaugural |
NanoXpo in 2017, which she helped co-found.
Monday, July 29, 2019
By Kritin Karkare
“I think a lot of people view nanotechnology as this magical force,” Angell said. “But it’s very tangible. It’s not inaccessible. I want people to understand it’s just manipulating materials on a different scale.”
As a graduate student in Professor Yi Chen’s lab, Angell manipulates DNA to make nanomachines that could improve drug delivery. She builds 3D structures out of the genetic material, taking advantage of DNA’s different properties like responding to small molecules and changes in pH. In addition to medicines, these nanomachines could deliver proteins and other biomolecules where they’re needed.
Her DNA robots are meant to solve a common issue when drug molecules are absorbed by a cell: Once a molecule enters the cell, it triggers a process where the cell turns part of its cell wall inside out and produces a compartment called an endosome, which holds the drug molecule inside. Unfortunately for the molecule, the endosome typically merges with lysosomes, which break down the molecule and prevent it from reaching its target. Angell’s approach is to take advantage of the acidification process that endosomes go through. She designed the nanorobots to respond to the endosome’s decrease in pH and expand, letting the molecule break free and continue on its journey.
She’s convinced that DNA nanotechnology like this could be the way of the future.
“It’s pretty bio-compatible. It’s easy to make structures out of as long as you follow certain design rules. It’s easy to target certain populations of cells,” she noted.
When she’s not working with DNA to improve human health, Angell is often found explaining her work and the field of nanoengineering, making it easy for everyone to understand. Participating in the Comic-Con panel “Nanotechnology in Sci-Fi: Fact or Fiction” was one of her favorite experiences. At the panel, she helped dispel some of the myths behind the nanoengineering commonly seen in movies and TV shows. For example, many people wonder whether the Nanites in Star Trek—nanorobots that took over space ships and founded their own civilization—exist in real life and could take over Earth. Angell helped quell that fear to a room so full that people had to be turned away.
“Honestly I was surprised by how many people wanted to learn about nanotechnology,” she said. “People wanted to know what was possible.”
She said it was cool to see the level of interest people had, and know that there were people from all over the world interested in nanotechnology.
While she’s confident in her ability to communicate nanoengineering to different audiences now, it wasn’t always that way.
“I needed to force myself to be comfortable with it,” she said.
Years of participating in public outreach events like Comic-Con and research talks eased her worries about public speaking.
Angell expanded on this vision of practicing communication while co-organizing NanoXpo, a research conference devoted to showcasing the UC San Diego NanoEngineering Department’s different research groups. The event included a poster competition judged by industry representatives and a networking reception. Graduate students had the chance to connect with industry partners, as well as with other students from different labs.
Angell is aware that not every graduate student is as motivated to practice communicating as she is, but says there are real benefits to it.
“As an engineer, you need to realize that— especially as a Ph.D. student— you’re defending your thesis to people who have no idea what your field is,” Angell said. Being able to convey your work and the importance of it is vital.
She believes that creating more opportunities to practice communication will encourage more students to talk about science with people in their field and the public.
As for whether nanorobots will take over the world? Angell says it’s not likely.