Nick Stephanopoulos

SMS assistant professor exemplifies cutting-edge molecular science research

By

Kimberley Baptista

From an early age, Nick Stephanopoulos was curious about the world around him. The love of science and the “what if’s” — and a father who was a chemical engineering professor at MIT — nurtured that curiosity with explanations of how to approach and learn about the world around him.

The excitement of understanding something new drew him to the field of chemistry and the potential to contribute something truly lasting — either an application (e.g. a medical therapy) or adding knowledge to the world.

In the fall of 2015, Stephanopoulos joined Arizona State University and the School of Molecular Sciences, then known as the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, as an assistant professor. His research interests are protein/peptide-DNA nanotechnology for novel bioactive materials, medicine, energy and nanorobotics. Initially, he was drawn by the Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics (CMDB), led by center director Hao Yan. The CMDB provided fertile ground for getting his exact research program off the ground, and Yan was building up a network of top-notch colleagues and young faculty.

“I like the name change to SMS quite a bit because it exemplifies extending beyond simple molecules to nanostructures, proteins/peptides/DNA, etc. After visiting and finding out more about SMS, I really liked the excitement of the school, the ability to do rather unconventional work, and the friendly and welcoming nature of my colleagues,” said Stephanopoulos. “With lots of new faculty hires, both at SMS and across ASU, the university feels like it’s really ‘up and coming’ and going to do great things. Being here is a way to be a part of that from the ground up.”

The past three years have been busy but exciting ones for Stephanopoulos. He has been able to create a research program that truly reflects his interests, and in this aspect it is fulfilling — getting to create something new and interesting, but also affect the lives of others, like his graduate students or people in his classes. That’s not to say that it’s not a stressful job; some days can feel like being thrown into the deep end of the pool without swimming lessons. But that is what keeps it interesting, says Stephanopoulos: “I not only get to learn new things every day, but also have to figure out how to navigate professorship, because there is no ‘standard’ way to do it. This flexibility to tailor it to my style is really cool.”

As a junior faculty member, Stephanopoulos' opportunities to collaborate have included extensive interactions with engineering, biology and physics; the nature of SMS encourages faculty to connect with these other fields and bring molecular sophistication into them. Stephanopoulos is courtesy faculty in BME and ChemE, with the encouragement of Neal Woodbury, professor and director of the School of Molecular Sciences.

Stephanopoulos was selected as one of the ASU top recipients for the prestigious Air Force Young Investigator award in 2016. The award, “Peptide-DNA Tiles as Building Blocks for Complex Nanostructures,” will support his work as part of CMDB, under Yan, who also holds the Milton Glick Chair in Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“The goal of the Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics is to use nature’s design rules as an inspiration in advancing biomedical, energy and electronics innovation through self-assembling molecules to create intelligent materials for better component control and for synthesis into higher-order systems,” said Yan. “The Air Force Office of Scientific Research YIP award will facilitate Nick’s research agenda in this direction and is a significant recognition of their creativity and track record at the early stage of his career.”

In 2018 Stephanopoulos was announced as one of the recipients of two distinguished awards, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) New Innovator Award and the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award. The New Innovator Award specifically “supports exceptionally creative early-career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects,” targeting investigators within 10 years of completing their doctoral degree or postdoctoral training. Stephanopoulos’ awards are among the 58 given to investigators nationwide this year; each recipient receives a $2.3 million grant for a five-year project. The NSF CAREER Awards are the most competitive and prestigious awards given by the NSF to junior faculty. They support teacher-scholars who effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization. Stephanopoulos' award is titled "Hybrid protein-DNA nanostructures and devices."

“Our junior faculty are working at the cutting edges of molecular science, in areas that are recognized by national organizations as critical, and that support the overall societal missions of our school. We are proud of our younger faculty members who are helping to expand the reputation for excellence in research of the former Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at ASU," said Woodbury. "These awards tell us that the school is able to hire the best young scientists as new faculty.”

Stephanopoulos sees the opportunities to make connections with his students and work in collaborative environment — reinforcing the new conception of what “chemistry” or “molecular sciences” is. He credits the really wonderful group of people he works with, including colleagues, lab members and students in the courses he teaches.

“I am constantly stimulated to learn new things, mentor others and feel like I’m really building something unique,” said Stephanopoulos. “Any given day you can have that flash of insight, you never know what the next big discovery will be.”