Biology with Technology

May 4, 2020
Dr. Eugene Wu uses technology in his research and his teaching.

Dr. Eugene WuWhat are your areas of focus in your research?

"I study viruses for one thing. How the molecules of the virus interact with the molecules of the host. I also study the origins of life on earth, which is related to the viruses. Part of our research is interested in how the first complex molecules of life on earth arose, and also how those molecules might have evolved into cellular life. I also work on the mechanisms of DNA replication, how DNA is copied from generation to generation. So those are three semi-related but distinct research areas."

How do you use technology in your research?

"Technology pervades everything in science. But in particular it’s used for simulations in my lab. I’ve collaborated with Carol Parish to perform some very challenging and computationally intensive simulations of the enzyme we work with, which is DNA polymerase. That’s the enzyme that copies DNA. So that involved the use of supercomputers that are here on campus, and off campus, and shared resources in order to perform such a large and complex simulation. The technology that is available to us is essential to that work."

Technology in the classroom.

"Beyond the slideshow, I’ve been recording my lectures so students can learn in their own time and according to their own preferences. I started by recording the audio of my lectures, using just my iPhone, and posting them on Blackboard. And then when Panopto (lecture capture) came around, I started using Panopto to record the audio and now the video of my lectures. And to me this – every student has different modes of learning, best ways they feel absorbing the material. Student certainly show up to class and interact, but I also find that students sometimes need to go back and rethink something, and having a recording of even just the audio but also the video of the lecture gives them a chance to take time to watch something over and over if they need to or review something they might have missed in class or that otherwise might just have disappeared into the ether for them."

Three Dimensions

"I teach a structural biology class, and structural biology is a field where we’re interested in the three-dimensional structures of macromolecules. How proteins come together with DNA and RNA to perform life’s functions. If we could see those things at the atomic level, at the scale of nanometers, it’s like looking under the hood of a car and seeing the engine for the first time and seeing how these moving parts work together for a particular function."

"So a couple of the things I have used in the classroom to augment what we can see on a screen is to use 3D software in the classroom so that students can move the molecule around in three dimensions, and zoom in and actually get inside the molecule and manipulate it. I’ve also used the 3D printer to make three-dimensional representations of macromolecules so that we can use objects that we can manipulate to get a better understanding of the characteristics of a protein. And just over the last few years I’ve incorporated the use of virtual reality in the classroom, with the help of the TLC, to allow students to actually walk into the molecule to see in an up-close view the three-dimensional nature of the active site of an enzyme – how the locations of particular atoms are important to how the whole 3D structure is put together for that protein to do its work."

"I want students to understand that molecules are not static pictures on a text book or a slide show; they’re dynamic objects. They change shape as they work. They have to move from place to place and interact with the surfaces of other molecules. And so making animations allows us to take what we have in our mind’s eye and put it on a screen, or put it on the computer to help students and help whoever they’re presenting to understand the dynamic nature of adding a fourth dimension to our ability to present information."