Honors and Awards

Monica Olvera de la Cruz and Chad Mirkin are recognized by Sherman Fairchild Foundation

Northwestern University’s Monica Olvera de la Cruz and Chad A. Mirkin have received significant five-year grants from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation in support of their innovative materials science research.

Olvera de la Cruz, the Lawyer Taylor Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the McCormick
School of Engineering, will receive $4.5 million to accelerate the discovery of new functions and application of synthetic structures, including hybrid biological and synthetic assemblies. She will focus on structures that mimic and enhance the action of protein membranes and cells to better understand biological functions, with applications in environmental remediation and health care. The project promises to push forward the field of biomimicry, which seeks to solve pressing problems by emulating nature.

Olvera de la Cruz is recognized internationally for her contributions to analyzing, modeling and designing new materials that mimic effective biological processes. She also is a professor of chemical and biological engineering, chemistry, and physics and astronomy and director of the Center for Computation and Theory of Soft Materials.                               

Mirkin, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry at the Weinberg College
of Arts and Sciences, will receive $5 million to develop a novel design method called “nanocombinatorics.” The chemistry-based approach would systematically and comprehensively screen innumerable nanomaterial combinations and identify the most promising for a given area of study or application.  The resulting encyclopedic resource of high-performance nanomaterials could be used in energy production, environmental remediation, health care, computing technology and homeland security.

Mirkin is world-renowned for his nanoscience expertise and invention of spherical nucleic acids and the development of biological and chemical diagnostic and therapeutic systems based upon them. He also is director of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology and a professor of medicine, chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering, and materials science and engineering.

The funds raised through We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern are helping realize the transformational vision set forth in Northwestern’s strategic plan and solidify the University’s position among the world’s leading research universities.


Breaking the Protein-DNA Bond

Study finds that free-floating proteins break up protein-DNA bonds at the single-binding site

Apr 4, 2017 //  Amanda Morris

The verdict is in: too many single, flirty proteins can break up a strong relationship.

A new interdisciplinary Northwestern University study reports that the important protein-DNA bond can be broken by unbound proteins floating around in the cell. This discovery sheds light on how molecules self-organize and how gene expression is dynamically controlled.

“The way proteins interact with DNA determines the biological activity of all living organisms,” said John F. Marko, professor of molecular biosciences, physics, and astronomy in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “Inevitably, any malfunction in this interaction network can lead to malevolent conditions. It is paramount to precisely understand the interaction mechanisms underlying protein-DNA associations.”

To understand this vital relationship, Marko led a study examining the sites where a single protein binds to DNA. Strands of DNA have specific sites on which other molecules can bind and become a part of the DNA’s genetic code. One type of DNA-binding proteins, called transcription factors (TF), are key players in the transcription of genetic information from DNA to messenger RNA (mRNA) to produce new proteins or other types of RNA. TF proteins control the biological processes in living cells by binding and unbinding to DNA.

In the experiment, Marko and his team developed a concentration of TF proteins bound to DNA mixed with unbound TF proteins, which competed with the bound proteins for their binding sites. They observed that unbound proteins caused the bound proteins to dissociate from the DNA. The unbound proteins then stole the newly available single-binding sites.

“Our experiments show that dissociation happens on the level of a single protein-DNA interaction,” Marko said. “This is new information for the field.”

Monica Olvera de la Cruz

Supported by the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, the research was published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ramsey Kamara, a former postdoctoral researcher in Marko’s laboratory, served as the paper’s first author. Northwestern Engineering’s Monica Olvera de la Cruz, the Lawyer Taylor Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, coauthored the paper.

Olvera de la Cruz led the development of a theoretical model and performed molecular dynamics simulations to show the prevalence of the protein-DNA break up at the single-binding site due to the competitor proteins. This disproves former beliefs that protein-DNA bonds were unaffected by unbound proteins and instead resulted from more “cooperative” interactions among many molecules, large protein clusters, or long DNA segments.

“Our results suggest that protein-DNA dissociation could have a profound effect on the dynamics of biological processes that depend on protein binding in vivo,” Olvera de la Cruz said. “This may be an important factor to take into account when modeling gene expression in living cells.”

Olvera de la Cruz to Receive 2017 APS Polymer Physics Prize

The prestigious award honors her contributions to the theoretical understanding of polymers

Northwestern Engineering’s Monica Olvera de la Cruz to receive the 2017 Polymer Physics Prize from the American Physical Society (APS).

Olvera de la Cruz was selected for her “outstanding contributions to the theoretical understanding of polymers and the effects of electrostatic interactions on their structure and properties.” She will officially accept the award at the APS March Meeting next year.

“I am honored to receive the 2017 APS Polymer Physics Prize,” said Olvera de la Cruz, the Lawyer Taylor Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “It is given to highly distinguished scientists, including three Nobel Prize winners — Pierre Gilles de Gennes, Peter J.W. Debye, and Paul Flory — and my PhD adviser Sir Sam Edwards.”

Olvera de la Cruz’s research focuses on the development of models to describe the self-assembly of heterogeneous molecules, including amphiphiles, copolymers, and synthetic and biological polyelectrolytes. She also studies the segregation and interface adsorption in multicomponent complex fluids. Her group’s work has resulted in a revised model of ionic-driven assembly, and its investigations into soft and condensed matter physics have advanced scientific knowledge and opened new research fields of technological importance.

“Polymers have fascinating physical properties,” Olvera de la Cruz said. “They have attracted studies by scientists and mathematicians for decades, given that they are one-dimensional molecules with nanoscale dimensions that are capable of taking multiple conformations.”

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Olvera de la Cruz has received several other honors and awards, including the Engineering and Applied Sciences Cozzarelli Prize from the National Academies, a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and the NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award and the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering. She is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society.

Honors and Awards


Northwestern’s Chad Mirkin (center) accepts the 2016 Dan David Prize in the Future Time Dimension from Joseph Klafter (left), president of Tel Aviv University and chairman of the Dan David Prize Board of Directors. Northwestern President Morton Schapiro (right), along with other Northwestern officials, also attended the May 22 awards ceremony. Photo by Hadari Photography