Encouraging Progress Through Diversity

From her own research on nano- and microscale proteins to mentoring the next generation of women, Jin Montclare is making a lasting impact

From the Protein Engineering and Molecular Design Lab at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, Montclare and her team focus on designing and generating protein-derived building blocks that are tailored to serve numerous applications, such as tissue engineering, drug delivery, imaging, energy and other such domains that require novel biomaterials.

In October, she and her colleagues were able to break the nano barrier to engineer the first micro protein. For as long as scientists have been able to create new proteins that are capable of self-assembling into fibers, their work has taken place on the nanoscale. For the first time, thanks in large part to Montclare, this achievement has been realized on the microscale—a leap of magnitude in size that presents significant new opportunities for using engineered protein fibers.

“This was a surprising and thrilling achievement,” said Montclare, explaining that this kind of diameter increase in the presence of small molecules is unprecedented. “A microscale fiber that is capable of delivering a small molecule, whether it be a therapeutic compound or other material, is a major step forward.”

Despite the enormity of the jump from nano- to microscale, the research team believes they can devise even larger fibers. The next step, Montclare says, is developing proteins that can assemble on the milliscale, creating fibers large enough to see with the naked eye. “It’s even possible to imagine generating hair out of self-assembly,” she says. The group published the results of the successful trials in the creation of engineered microfiber proteins in the journal Biomacromolecules.

The Next Generation

Montclare hopes that other women will join her at the forefront of science and technology. She works hard to make sure more girls and women study and consider careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. One of her latest projects, which involves engineering a protein that may prevent brain damage in soldiers and civilians exposed to toxic chemicals, combines the two.

“The project was initiated by a high school student named Michelle Zhang, who wanted to [experiement with proteins],” Montclare says. Zhang ended up participating in Intel and other science competitions for high school students and is now a Cornell undergraduate.

“We introduced new building blocks and used them to fortify these enzymes, stabilizing them."

Montclare and her team engineered the protein after becoming interested in how they could break down organophosphates—compounds commonly used in pesticides and warfare agents, which interact with enzymes involved in transmission in the brain and can cause irreversible damage. “We looked at enzymes and considered ones called phosphotriesterases, which can do the job,” she says, but with the drawback that they’re not very stable and don’t last long.

Their next step was to reengineer these proteins so they would stand up to heat and time by adding non-natural amino acids. “We introduced new building blocks and used them to fortify these enzymes, stabilizing them,” she explains. Using a computational tool called Rosetta, they were able to identify a more stable, longer-lasting protein that does the work of the original. Their research was supported by a grant from the U.S. Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation.

The lab continues to refine this patent-pending process. “Ideally, it will work against lots of toxins not just a specific one,” Montclare says. She expects that a spray that can quickly wash pesticides off produce may be available in less than 10 years.

Paying It Forward 

Part of the reason Montclare feels so strongly about encouraging young women in science is because she had “wonderful mentors who shuttled me into science, from elementary school through college and beyond.” A native New Yorker, she earned her undergraduate degrees in chemistry and philosophy from Fordham. She has a PhD in bioorganic chemistry from Yale and a post-doc from Caltech in chemical engineering.

“You need diverse minds to make progress, to open viewpoints and perspectives in order to attack problems and make discoveries.”

Montclare’s original role model was her paternal grandmother, who fled with her four children to an orphanage in Busan, Korea, where she managed to find work as a nurse, after her husband was taken captive during the Korean War. She was eventually able to go to Canada to study and then to the U.S., bringing her children over one by one. “[My grandmother] was my role model and an inspiration to my whole family,” Montclare says. “For her, education was truly important—it’s what got her through, how she was able to come to this country.”

Montclare believes the interest and drive toward science must start long before college. To that end, she developed an outreach program on science and technology with the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, a girls’ school near the School of Engineering in Downtown Brooklyn, where most of the students come from underprivileged, minority backgrounds. “If I can show other girls [that STEM fields are] exciting, something they can do, and a career worth pursuing, we can increase the numbers in science and engineering,” she says.

“I wish there were more diverse students, not just females, studying science,” she adds. “You need diverse minds to make progress, to open viewpoints and perspectives in order to attack problems and make discoveries.”