News

The Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering graduate students delivering on the promise of engineered proteins

Michael Meleties and Dustin Britton

Graduate students Michael Meleties and Dustin Britton

Professor Jin Kim Montclare has been justly celebrated for her work, which centers on the possibilities of engineered proteins for a range of health and environmental applications, from targeting human disorders and drug delivery to tissue regeneration, to detoxifying neurotoxic agents.

And working alongside her in the Montclare Lab for Protein Engineering and Molecular Design is a cadre of dedicated graduate students, each making their own inroads and creating a healthier world in the process.

“I’ve always considered teaching and mentoring the next generation of engineers and scientists to be an essential part of my job,” Montclare says, “and it is such a  privilege to work with my students and witness their contributions as they make their mark in the research field.”

Below, read about some of those contributions in their own words.


Dustin Britton

Doctoral candidate Dustin Britton was among the first of Montclare’s students to get back into the lab after COVID-19 hit, to work to address the pandemic.

Year of projected graduation: 2024

Describe your undergraduate journey and what brought you to Tandon to study with Professor Montclare:
I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of North Dakota and master’s degree at the University of Delaware, both in Chemical Engineering. My master’s program involved a corporate research internship that was my first true experience in a research setting. I loved the “job” of scientist and wanted to learn to apply the skill set in a health-sciences setting.

Describe your research in simple terms:
My major research project has been to develop a more sensitive rapid antigen test for COVID-19. This has mainly involved synthesizing a protein that binds to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein with especially high affinity.

What are the future practical applications for your work? Is it translational?
The most immediate application of this protein would be for incorporation into a lateral flow assay (LFA) test (the format most commonly used for pregnancy tests). Currently LFA tests for COVID-19 have low sensitivity and can be quite costly, hence the need to engineer a low-cost alternative with greater ability to detect COVID-19. This will be especially critical should a similar coronavirus emerge in the future.

What is the best or most rewarding part of conducting research at Tandon?
The most rewarding part of conducting research at Tandon is belonging to a group of scientists (professors and students alike) who truly want to make an impact on the world. This is made evident by the types of problems we try to solve, which range from engineering solutions to the energy crisis to more effective ways to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs.

What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
To be honest I have felt pretty lucky to get to where I am. But let me spin one thing into a sort of pseudo-challenge. I did not have exposure to science as I know it today until I stumbled upon it just a few months before I applied for my Ph.D. program. When I reflect on this, I think about how lucky I am to have realized how cool the prospect of being a scientist is. I think this could be an even more consequential challenge for someone with less privilege, who might find their path to a STEM field stymied. I’m happy to have truly great and generous mentors who inspired a passion for science in me and gave me the tools I need to inspire it in others.

What do you hope to do after earning your doctoral degree?
I took part in the National Science Foundation I-Corps, which encourages entrepreneurship based on academic research, and I have really enjoyed the experience of trying to build a startup with Professor Montclare. I would be interested in building or joining a team of researchers in the biomaterials field eager to help solve an important world issue.


Michael Meleties

Thanks to the Montclare Lab’s network of alumni, Michael Meleties was able to spend the Fall 2020 semester working in the process development subgroup of the Formulation Development Group at biotech company Regeneron. The experience gave him insight in the pharmaceutical industry and a firsthand look at how various groups within the company worked together in response to the pandemic.

Year of projected graduation: 2022

Describe your undergraduate journey and what brought you to Tandon to study with Professor Montclare:
I completed an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at the City College of New York, one of the senior colleges in the CUNY system.

Describe your research in simple terms:
My research focuses on the self-assembly of protein hydrogels. I look into the different mechanisms and driving forces that cause a protein to form a hydrogel and how we can harness this to design biomaterials with desired assembly properties.

What are the future practical applications for your work? Is it translational?
Protein hydrogels typically show promise for biomedical applications such as drug delivery and tissue engineering. We've previously published work on a protein hydrogel demonstrating that it is able to encapsulate and release small hydrophobic molecules, which is often a challenge for chemotherapeutic drugs.

What is the best or most rewarding part of conducting research at Tandon?
The best part is the overall diversity in the research being done. This makes it easy to learn new techniques, for example, because there is often someone else here who has experience with it.

What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
My Ph.D. research is in a completely different field than what I was used to from my undergraduate work. As a result, I had to learn many of the basics when I first started.

What do you hope to do after earning your doctoral degree?
I hope to get a position in the pharmaceutical industry where I can apply what I learned to real-life problems, and I also look forward to mentoring next-generation scientists looking to join the industry.