I was born in Montana and raised in eastern Wyoming in small towns that few know the names of. The commonality is very large coal-fired power plants in all places. I am the son of a high school math teacher and my father, a Vietnam veteran, began as a meter reader for Montana power and ended his career as the superintendent of the Laramie River Station, the 3rd largest coal-fired power plant in the nation.
I graduated the University of Wyoming with my bachelor’s degree in molecular biology in 1998. I then immediately joined the master’s program in the same department and graduated in 2000. Upon graduation, I was hired by a start-up biotechnology company in Littleton, Colorado where I remained for close to two years. While there, my education was vastly expanded into both science in the industry as well as the business aspects of starting/running a biotechnology company. The experiences that I gained while there have proven some of the most valuable of my career.
I then moved back to the University of Wyoming to a position that again broadened my education and experiences as I became the director of the Macromolecular Core Equipment Facility. During this tenure, I managed the day to day operations of high-end mass spectrometers and the like. Daily interaction with faculty and students at a very high level to accomplish research objectives was very fulfilling. However, it became abundantly clear that I had reached my ceiling in academia with my current degree.
The opportunity to come to Utah State University with Dr. Randy Lewis was then offered. Fortunately, that allowed me to pursue and complete my Ph.D. in 2015 and raise my career ceiling in academia. My new position as a research assistant professor combines all of my education and experiences in a new and challenging way. How to produce and then commercialize spider silk?
I have actively been involved in research into recombinant and native spider silk proteins for over 20 years. The application and development of recombinant silk proteins are intriguing and an area of science toward which students tend to gravitate. As a result of this experience, I have trained and interacted with a large number of graduate and undergraduate students as well as post-doctoral researchers from within the United States as well and a number of different countries. My experiences have taught me a number of things about what motivates undergraduate and graduate students and how to reach them in order for them to achieve at a high level. As an educator of these strong minds, I strive to provide students with a direct link to research that interests them, to challenge them to improve their thinking and thus their research, to instill a strong work ethic through adherence to timelines and responsibilities, and finally, to promote independent and novel thought.
There are two sides to my teaching experience and philosophies: laboratory practices and experimentation and also traditional lecture based. Often time’s concepts that are difficult to understand from a textbook or lecture become crystal clear when applied or visualized in the laboratory. As well, concepts that are difficult to understand or even glossed over in the laboratory can be more thoroughly explained and understood from the lecture. One on one interactions within the laboratory, teaching students how to experiment in the biological sciences is perhaps the most fun for me. Provided with the right instruction and guidance, one can witness the transformation in the students from simple knowledge gleaned within the classroom to knowledge about processes and procedures within the laboratory. Concepts become reality as students realize how the many aspects of biology come to play in research in the biological and life sciences.
Undergraduate and graduate students come into the laboratory with a bright-eyed attitude and generally have preconceived notions of what they want to achieve and what bench research will embody. While one certainly never wants to quench their ambition, it needs to be channeled and directed. To do this, I encourage students to understand the entire scope of their project or degree through one on one and group discussion. Knowing the end point they want to achieve, students can more thoroughly, understand the steps or experiments needed. They must certainly learn the techniques, read the literature, perform experiments, and write the paper, but also take the time to consider exactly what needs to be done and in what order, and in what time-frame, to achieve their goal.
Lecture-based teaching is critically important to expand students’ repertoire of knowledge. Within the lecture, the material must be presented in a logical progression of concepts with pertinent, engaging examples that allow the students to understand the topic area thoroughly. The lecture should not be a regurgitation of the reading assigned, but rather an elucidation of the concepts that explains and expands the ideas and actions in a manner to which students can relate. The lecture should help enable students to make connections between concepts, not simply deliver facts. Ideally, these concepts can be further elucidated through practical laboratory teachings.
For the last 20+ years, I have been involved in spider silk research in a variety of capacities and levels. I have participated in the expansion of the basic spider silk research to applied technologies and now to commercialization attempts. While the majority of my research experience has been in academia on spider silk, I have also taken forays into the biotech industry, prion proteins and the service industry of science: a chemistry and biochemistry core facility. All of these experiences have provided me with a solid foundation to not only perform scientific discovery but to build and maintain a successful and active research laboratory. The diversity in experiences that I bring to the table that was acquired from my time in biotech, as the director of the Macromolecular Core Equipment Facility and performing spider silk research provide me with some of the intangibles of leading a research group. Interacting with the administration, national funding agencies, scientific collaborators, business interests, the scientific community, as well as the local community are only some of the experiences that I strongly feel are necessary for building a successful research group in the biological sciences.
The immediate direction for my research is the continued development of a process to harvest recombinant spider silk proteins (rSSp) from bacteria at industrial scales. There is extramural funding available to aid in the development of this process through the NSF PFI-AIR program. To date the program manager has been contacted and based upon her positive reception of the concept, a formal proposal will be prepared and submitted this year.
The aqueous solvation method for recombinant spider silk proteins that I developed will also be further explored. As I have worked on the scale-up problems with rSSp, the interesting and scientifically relevant portions of this method have largely gone unquestioned. It is intriguing that this method can effectively perform a protein structure reset on a traditionally insoluble and difficult protein. These rSSp’s that are largely β-sheet and impervious to water can be forcibly reset to more water friendly coiled structures. How does that happen? What is the basal structure achievable? How does the progression of unfolding affect ultimate material properties and is there a structural sweet spot that yields the best properties? How might this method be applied to other protein areas such as prions and G-protein coupled receptors, for example? These are all questions I intend to pursue scientifically and I will be actively seeking extramural funding to that end.
Concurrently, the continued evolution and understanding of rSSp materials generated from the aqueous method will be explored. The underlying method, heat, and pressure, generates rSSp that is sterile and able to be formed into fibers, films, foams, gels, sponges and adhesives. These materials lend themselves to the medical field in a variety of applications. Catheter coatings where rSSp is utilized to coat traditional silicone catheters to prevent biofouling, increase lubricity as well as prevent fibrin sheath and thrombotic occlusion are actively being explored with a leading industry partner. Two NIH-SBIR phase I grants have been submitted to this end and declined. I will continue seeking to fund for this project as there is strong industry interest and the reasons that the SBIR grants were declined are all very useful pieces of knowledge to continue to develop the concept and they will make for a stronger future proposal.
I will actively seek collaboration both at Utah State University, other research institutions and from within the biotech industry to accomplish the research outlined above. Having had the privilege of working with collaborators from institutions such as UC-Davis, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Michigan and Arizona State University, I have a demonstrated ability to collaborate with diverse research interests and personalities. These experiences have provided me with a strong understanding of how to make collaborations work and what situations to avoid in order to successfully compete for extramural funding and achieve a successful research outcome.