Professors Joanna Ellis-Monaghan and Greta Pangborn awarded $2 million NSF grant with CalTech & NYU teammates

By: Buff Lindau

jo ellis monaghan and greta pangbornSaint Michael's Professor of Mathematics Joanna Ellis-Monaghan and Professor of Computer Science Greta Pangborn are part of the team of 10 experts working on a project to develop self-replicating nanoscale origami. The project team learned August 1, 2013, that it has been awarded $2 million from the National Science Foundation to pursue their work.

The investigators are focusing on "the application of origami folding to structural DNA nanotechnology, with the goal of identifying and selecting the useful configurations, copying them to produce more, and evolving the configurations over successive generations to optimize desirable features,"  according to the press release issued by CalTech.

"Given current trends in the field, being able to build materials in 3D is a very important next step," Si-ping Han, a CalTech postdoctoral scholar wrote in the press release.

Important, wide-ranging potential applications for the research

Expectations for this complex collaborative research effort range from environmental cleanup to human therapies.

Ellis-Monaghan, a mathematician working in applied graph theory, and Pangborn, a computer scientist working in operation research, will use tools from graph theory and origami mathematics to formulate provably optimal strategies and automated algorithms for designing self-assembling DNA nanostructures and their origami folds.  They will be working closely with each of the labs to develop accurate general mathematical problem formulation for the various processes and also to meet to design challenges for specific structures targeted by the labs.

Ellis-Monaghan and Pangborn are most excited because this application will have a notable impact on the direction of mathematical investigations, with the mathematics not only informing the original DNA design problems but also eventually diverging from the original stimulus to problems of independent mathematical interest. 

"Nanotechnology and biomolecular computing, especially when discrete structures and interconnections are involved, are necessarily and naturally rich sources of new problems, problems that do not necessarily follow directly from current mainstream work in graph theory and origami mathematics and hence will take the fields in new directions," Ellis-Monaghan said. And since Saint Michael's College is a liberal arts college in northern Vermont, they are also very pleased that this funding provides opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in cutting edge research with such important applications.

The interdisciplinary team consists of William A. Goddard, III and Si-ping Han of Caltech, Nadrian C. Seeman, James W. Canary and Paul M. Chaikin of NYU, John Rossi and Lisa Scherer of City of Hope, Joanna Ellis-Monaghan and Greta Pangborn of Saint Michael's College in Vermont, and Julian Voss-Andreae, a professional sculptor based in Portland, Oregon. Goddard is the project PI and grant is a part of NSF's Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation (ODISSEI) program.

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