Functionalising materials with protein nanowires, from tissue engineering to biobattery: Meet Nga Lam

By Vina Putra

Nga is a Scientia PhD Candidate at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences (BABS), UNSW. Her research focuses on engineering proteins with metal ions to create nanosized wires that can be used to provide electroconductivity and to functionalise materials for biomedical and energy applications. Nga is passionate about biomaterials research, in promoting the work of women and providing support for women in science. 

Nga’s journey in science has cultivated her passion for biomaterials research

For Nga Lam, spending time in the lab and being constantly fascinated by small findings from her experiments are the key to thrive in science. As a PhD candidate, Nga studies a specific type of protein that carries metal ions, called metalloproteins. She engineers, synthesises and characterises protein for the spatial organisation of metalloproteins to create nanowires. Ultimately, she aims to use the nanowires to functionalise materials where electroconductivity is desired such as in neural tissue-engineered construct or to provide source of bioenergy, the bio-battery.

Nga’s protein nanowire relies on the electron transfer through metal ions that are present in the centre of metalloproteins. When these proteins are spatially organised in series, these metal ions could generate electronically conductive signals as electrons go through the system from one end to the other. “It is exciting to be able to see the electrons travel through my protein nanowire”, Nga explained in awe. This could be the first step to revolutionize electronic devices by using biological system.

But how do we arrange the proteins in such a way that they can exhibit electroconductivity? Nga’s work starts all the way from designing the gene and inserting it into bacteria to sufficiently produce the desired metalloproteins. Synthesising metalloproteins in bacterial cells is challenging, therefore, Nga has to optimise conditions for the expression of proteins with different metal ions such as heme, Iron-sulfur (Fe-S) or copper. She then aligns metalloproteins along protein filaments and engineers the terminal site of nanowires to be able to incorporate them into enzymes (molecules that can catalyse biochemical reactions); one kind which serves as electron donor and the other as electron acceptor. “This way catalytic reactions of enzymes can drive electrons hopping from terminus to the opposite site without the need to apply external voltage. It’s a source of energy from biocatalysis”.

Nga in her lab at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences (BABS), UNSW

Now, three years into her PhD, Nga looks back through her journey in science and shares with us what she has learned from her experience as a female scientist.

Nga grew up in the centre of Mekong delta, Can Tho city, Vietnam. She started off her journey in science as she pursued a bachelor program in advanced biotechnology in Can Tho University, Vietnam, with a joined curriculum from Michigan State University. Her passion for science grew bigger as soon after completing her bachelor studies, she worked in the research and development team in a Japanese-originated baseball glove company called Trion. She studies various types of feathers and their mechanical properties to create baseball gloves with specific functions. It is during this work in developing materials for baseball gloves that inspired her to further her career as a biomaterials scientist. She then moved to Thailand and pursued a master’s degree by research at Kasetsart University, where she studied cellulose from agricultural waste such as sugarcane bagasse for tissue engineering scaffolds. Nga’s master research revolved around cellulose nanoparticles and developing ways to improve the functionality of materials.

After graduating from her master’s studies, Nga became a research assistant in the same group where she completed her master’s research. During this time, her career in science really took off as she had the opportunity to explore and incorporate bioactive materials. In particular, she developed methods to produce and incorporate hydroxyapatite (HA) as a bioactive component in the nanocellulose scaffold. Her recent publication reports the novel method for homogenisation of HA using cellulose nanocrystals, which promotes osteoblast (bone cells) proliferation and differentiation or specialisation. Nga also gained leadership experience as she worked with honours students in the lab at Kasetsart in utilising nanocellulose from plants and bacteria, in which she tested her method of functionalisation with HA for tissue engineering. Her work resulted in 11 publications within the span of 4 years.  With years of experience in biomaterials engineering, she came to learn that the lack of recognition (protein) for biological cells has been the challenge in the functionality of materials, and this became her motivation to work on protein-functionalised biomaterials.

Nga at Kasetsart University, Bangkok, where she completed her master’s degree and worked as a research assistant

As a woman in Science, Nga opened up about the challenges that she encountered throughout her journey in research while living in different countries. One of the biggest challenges for her was as she shared, “There would always be people or situations that would try to stop you from achieving your goals or be unsupportive”.  Her advice for women facing obstacles is “to keep doing it for science, show the highest commitment and love in the science you’re doing, and others won’t matter”.

As a UNSW Woman in Science Champion, Nga visions herself to hone her leadership skills in the program to one day become a research leader who empowers and supports women in getting access to the knowledge and training they seek. She also looks forward to taking part in promoting women’s achievement in science and hopes that the next generation of women scientists strongly cultivate their love for science – love is the greatest motivator.

Check out Nga’s scientific work here and follow her on twitter @Nga_TLam

Combat burnout with creativity

By Maureen Thompson

I encounter a lot of advice from the wellness industry on how to avoid burnout or maintain a balanced life while accomplishing all your career goals. These messages usually dovetail with some commodities or consumables. But the antidote doesn’t have to. Burnout includes emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, cynicism, and feelings of diminished personal efficacy or accomplishment in the context of the work environment. Burnout doesn’t just result in a temporary bad mood, but it can leave an impression on your brain and ultimately stifle personal and professional growth. Women experience more psychological and physical manifestations of burnout adjunct stress than men. As someone who looks for evidence to back up choices that I might otherwise consider guilty pleasures (i.e., chocolate, red wine, rest days). I went down a rabbit hole to justify the time and space I devote to papier-mâché projects.

I made a wombat piñata to commemorate my friend’s time in Australia

Sure, time spent in nature can improve working memory and increase cognitive performance. But time spent in nature is hard to come by right now, as I live in a 5-million-person city with no car and 5 jobs. For my PhD research, I use data collected by citizen science participants to learn more about Australian frog breeding and ecology. I love that the data was gathered by passionate and curious people volunteering their time all over the country. It inspires me to share something worthwhile back with them. But it also means I’m not personally connecting with the places where my study species live. When I hear frogs call, it’s through headphones. I’m not getting my shins wet stalking through sedges to find them or sneaking up behind them on a bedrock creek. Before embarking on my PhD, I spent 15 years as a field biologist, and I really miss that visceral, whole-body connection to my work.

The Herpetology department in frog head costumes for the Australian Museum’s employee costume party

But taking time to be creative is more accessible as it can be done in small increments anywhere. Doing something creative not only has its own benefits to physiology, brain structure, and quality of life, but by engaging your brain in different ways you give yourself space to reframe thoughts, personal experiences, and gain new insights. The positive valance associated with making art allows for easier recovery from negative stimuli (i.e., journal rejections). Oil painting has been found to evoke unique emotional and physiological responses, potentially because it is so fluid and tactile. The physical act of colouring has been shown to lower heart rate and respiration while loosening muscles, stimulating the brain, and boosting concentration and productivity.

When you are making art, you are making a series of decisions and working towards a final product. You are imagining a future and creating it. Creating something that did not exist before. If for example you are working on a Sisyphean task (i.e., a PhD) with no payout for days upon weeks upon months upon years, your brain needs to know it can accomplish something! It helps maintain productivity and importantly informs it of optimism.

One of my creative outlets is making masks, costumes, and piñatas out of papier-mâché. I love papier-mâché because it is almost free – I use household products (flour, water, and salt) and cardboard and newspaper gleaned from my apartment building’s bins. It’s truly hands on – it requires no tools or accoutrements. As someone who spends a lot of time with my hands and eyes locked in the same posture at a computer, I really appreciate the direct engagement and the mess. For me, making papier-mâché homages brings an intimate connection that reinforces my work. Attempting to mould a replica helps me appreciate the details of my study species and then revisit my research with more curiosity.

I spent many months in pursuit of Sclerocactus wetlandicus, a rare species of cactus endemic to the Uinta Basin of Utah. I made this piñata for my crew member’s birthday.

Creativity is important for remaining healthy and engaged with the world, a key aspect of mitigating burnout. Creative activities allow you to make connections between unrelated things. And simultaneously, making new connections and viewing things from another perspective can be important asset for research. I appreciate this message from Gladding and Newsome:

“Art serves as both a catalyst and conduit for understanding oneself in a larger world context. It does so through stirring up feelings and opening up possibilities… so the world becomes ever new and the view of what can be, if worked on, becomes what is.”

So, if you aren’t already, I encourage you to make room in your life for what you find freeing and creative. It’s not just a guilty pleasure. It’s good for you as a whole person and has the potential to improve your relationship with your work.

Bluebottle jellyfish wedding pata to celebrate my impending move to Australia

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