Nuala Del Piccolo is a PhD candidate in Professor Kalina Hristova’s research lab. She earned her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering in 2012 from Johns Hopkins University.

How did you get interested in materials science and engineering?
I did my undergrad degree in biomedical engineering, and I found myself especially interested in theory and applications at the molecular level. Materials science emphasizes the relationship between molecular structure/organization/interactions and larger system properties, and I was interested in studying biological systems from this perspective. The two fields are complementing each other nicely so far.

What made you choose Johns Hopkins?
I came to JHU as an undergrad, and I started working with my advisor, Dr. Kalina Hristova, at that time. The strength of Hopkins’ engineering programs and biomedical research resources, combined with the exciting direction of research in Kalina’s lab, kept me here for my PhD.

What is your research focus? Why does it interest you?
My research is focused on quantifying protein-protein interactions in the cell membrane. The membrane has unique material properties that make it notoriously difficult to study. However, detailed molecular information about the membrane is important: many biological processes initiate at the membrane and the majority of current therapeutics target membrane proteins (and the way these drugs work is often unclear). We develop and implement novel fluorescence microscopy methods to quantitatively characterize membrane protein interactions in previously inaccessible ways. These experiments produce exciting new information about membrane proteins, which is essential to understanding native biological processes and may inform the development of more effective therapies.

What’s been the most satisfying moment for you in the lab?
My experiments don’t lend themselves to Eureka!-type moments in the lab, but I am proud of my recent work quantifying the interactions of two non-identical membrane proteins. This is a challenging problem, both theoretically and experimentally, and previous work has relied on various simplifications. I redeveloped the model and equations to be more general, and characterized interactions in a complex model membrane system. Our results reveal new information about interactions within a family of membrane proteins, and the effects of disease-linked mutations on those interactions. I am currently writing a manuscript about this project, hopefully coming soon to a journal near you(r computer)!

Outside of the lab: are you involved with any community service, groups, organizations, sports, etc.?
As part of WSE’s new HEART program (seminars intended to introduce freshmen to engineering research), I developed and teach a fall semester course, “Visualizing Biomolecules,” which explores the use of microscopy in bioengineering research. I also volunteer at educational outreach events with the local section of the Society of Women Engineers. In my free time, I enjoy running.