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Chemistry Prof. Al-Hashimi named in Popular Science's 'Brilliant 10'

By Giacomo Bologna, Daily Staff Reporter
and Caitlin Huston, Daily News Editor
Published September 28, 2011

University Prof. Hashim Al-Hashimi, a biophysical chemist, has moved beyond his lab to the pages of Popular Science.

The magazine recently named Al-Hashimi one of this year’s “Brilliant 10” — a group of young researchers recognized for their accomplishments — for his project involving nuclear imaging of DNA and RNA movements. Popular Science gave him the title “Molecular Filmmaker.”

Al-Hashimi, who has worked for the University since August 2002, is using nuclear magnetic spectroscopy, which he compares to an MRI with a higher magnetic field, to examine individual atoms that make up structures such as DNA and proteins. Using this technology, Al-Hashimi and his team — including several University graduate students —have found that DNA is a moving molecule, rather than a static structure.

Unlike previous methods of studying molecules, the nuclear magnetic resonance allows Al-Hashimi, who is the University’s Robert L. Kuczkowski professor of chemistry, to see how the atoms and nucleic acid move in three dimensions.

“The advantage of using this nuclear magnetic resonance method is that in principle, it can provide us with insight as to how the atoms jiggle and wiggle and not just the static arrangement of how they look in a structure,” he said.

By getting a detailed picture of the atoms “dancing,” Al-Hashimi said he and his team examined the RNA molecule for HIV and identified the compound that can stop HIV replication. Al-Hashimi compared the imaging method to identifying the proper lock or molecule shape, so researchers can determine which key or drug can unlock it.

“By imaging the whole image of the lock … we increase our chances of finding the key,” he said.

This method of imaging can also be applied to finding the proper drug to combat multiple diseases found in RNA including cancer and Alzheimer’s.

As his experiment progresses, Al-Hashimi said he would like to begin imaging larger pieces of the cell and eventually take 3-D images of the entire cell in order to see large-scale movements. The goal, Al-Hashimi said, is to make a movie of a cell and another of a drug interacting with the cell.

“It’s a big game changer,” he said.

Al-Hashimi said he found out about his Popular Science award in an e-mail and was honored to hear that he was selected.

“It's wonderful to be recognized,” he said. “It's great to share this with my students and collaborators.”

Al-Hashimi said the University community, including his wife, Allison Aiello, the John G. Searle assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health, has encouraged his work.

“It's nice to be at the University of Michigan where you're in a very supportive environment,” Al-Hashimi said.

Al-Hashimi added that he also received support from LSA, as the college purchased more space for his research expansion. In turn, Al-Hashimi said he likes to use his research to better engage his students.

“I love teaching and I often try to mix (research and teaching) together,” he said. “I have lots of undergraduate students, for example, doing my research and learning science by doing science at the lab, and it’s a nice compliment to the lecture material.”

When he teaches about elements, for example, Al-Hashimi doesn't teach the concept abstractly. Instead, he likes to focus on one or two elements that he's currently researching to make a more interesting and concrete connection for students. Al-Hashimi added that he also makes an effort to have an undergraduate student work on each of his academic papers.

“I often in the lectures talk about science from a research perspective … I present the material in a way that a scientist might think about it,” he said.


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