IMat Initiative Lead Q&A: Valeria Milam

Valeria Milam

Valeria Tohver Milam leads the Macromolecular Materials at Biotic and Abiotic Interfaces research initiative for the Institute for Materials (IMat) and the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences at Georgia Tech. In this role, she is working to build an inclusive and active community across and beyond Georgia Tech to identify emerging research directions in macromolecular materials for biological and nonbiological applications. Milam is an associate professor in Materials Science and Engineering and a program faculty member of the Bioengineering graduate program at Georgia Tech.

In this brief Q&A, Milam discusses her research focus, how it relates to materials research, and the impact of this initiative.

What is your field of expertise and at what point in your life did you first become interested in this area?

My field of expertise lies in bio-inspired materials science and engineering. Natural macromolecular components of biological systems such as cell receptors or antibodies rely on recognition-based binding events to, for example, allow a cell to take up particular nutrients or to neutralize a specific pathogen threat. Inspired by nature’s capabilities, my group’s research strives to identify and study synthetic macromolecular materials with bio-inspired compositions and self-folded structures. I first became interested in using DNA for its recognition capabilities during my postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania. For the first several years as an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, my group used DNA duplexes as a temporary glue between particle surfaces. Our more recent efforts focus on finding oligonucleotides to function as ligands or capture agents for a specific biological or nonbiological target.

What questions or challenges sparked your current materials research?

Polymers or macromolecules hold a lot of promise as a class of materials for various applications. Synthetic macromolecules, however, pose a lot of synthesis and post-use challenges that can hinder the discovery and practical use of novel macromolecular chemistries. Natural polymers such as oligonucleotides and proteins, on the other hand, have their own elegant synthesis and degradation pathways. To promote discovery of novel macromolecular materials, my group uses nature’s reagents and building blocks to synthesize numerous artificial biopolymer candidates. Since we do not start with any sequence design rules, we rely on maximizing the composition diversity of these artificial biopolymers. We then test all candidates collectively to efficiently choose ones with the desired functionality.

Why is your initiative important to the development of Georgia Tech’s Materials research strategy?

One of the challenges to discovering macromolecular systems that are both novel and practical is the lack of design rules. For example, how does one choose the right number and composition of repeat units for a macromolecule that binds to a particular material surface or to a particular biological target. If you can take advantage of nature’s building blocks and enzymes, then you can explore a wide chemical combinatorial space without having to follow any prerequisite design rules. Better yet, you can then use your initial findings to come up with design rules to explore additional, possibly better macromolecular candidates. This approach to macromolecule discovery is inherently interdisciplinary since one must combine or adapt techniques and approaches developed by biologists, polymer scientists, and materials engineers. Thus, Georgia Tech is a great place to foster this interdisciplinary strategy to research.

What are the broader global and social benefits of the research you and your team conduct?

In addition to training members of our future workforce with interdisciplinary skill sets, we want to carve out a pathway to designing, synthesizing and using environmentally friendly, multiuse macromolecules with commercial promise.

What are your plans for engaging a wider GT faculty pool with IMat research?

Currently, we are primarily in the brainstorming stage. To this end, I am engaging with science and engineering faculty at GT as well as Emory. As cross-disciplinary ideas start to brew, we will work towards multi-PI funding opportunities that engage the broader GT faculty and community.

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