Although it could one day lead to advances in drugs that treat HIV, Harish Vashisth’s research is far more likely to use supercomputers than the pipettes or microscopes more commonly associated with biomedical research.
Vashisth, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at UNH, received a prestigious CAREER award from the National Science Foundation for molecular simulations of nucleic acids, specifically a particular ribonucleic acid (RNA) element from the HIV genome.
Biomolecules are flexible, he says, and how they flex in cells dictates whether they will lead to useful functions or negative outcomes like disease. “One could potentially choose any dynamic state of a biomolecule and design a drug to specifically suppress that movement of that biomolecule,” he says.
But because biomolecules are so small, they can’t be easily visualized experimentally, for instance with a microscope. “So we do it computationally,” says Vashisth, describing his work as more theoretical than experimental. “The way we approach it is as a biophysical chemist.”
Running computer simulations that take months, Vashisth uses UNH’s Cray supercomputer as well as NSF-supported supercomputing centers in national labs around the country. “These are computationally expensive calculations,” he says. Nonetheless, this CAREER award will primarily fund a graduate student, as well as a series of workshops that aim to build “visuospatial thinking” skills at a range of levels, from high school students through faculty colleagues.
Vashisth’s work is part of a larger bioengineering effort at UNH, led by the recent launch of an interdisciplinary bioengineering undergraduate program and a cohort of colleagues in both CEPS and the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture. He says the program gives him lots of interaction with undergraduates as well as with researchers in similar programs at schools like Harvard, MIT, Boston University or Dartmouth.
“Honored and surprised” to receive the highly competitive award, Vashisth credits UNH support — in particular, the faculty development workshops offered by the UNH Research and Engagement Academy and the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Research — for helping him create a high-quality proposal.