Vanessa Ortiz | Using Physics and Engineering to Understand Biological Phenomena

Vanessa Ortiz
Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering
This profile is included in the publication Excellentia, which features current research of Columbia Engineering faculty members.
Photo by Eileen Barroso

Sometimes the building blocks of life—DNA—get knocked askew. The double-helical form that nucleic acids are customarily known for can change and, when it does, the transmission of genetic information is affected. Unfortunately it can be almost impossible to observe, in a laboratory setting, how these different conformations occur.

When experimental attempts fail to capture the details of super-microscopic mechanics like that of DNA, computer simulations on the macromolecular level can deliver valuable insight into what drives assembly in biology. For example, mutations in spectrin proteins are linked to muscular dystrophy and other genetic diseases. These mutations change the way in which the protein unfolds on length-scales that are too small for experimentalists to see. Computer simulation of the process provides atom-by-atom detail about the interactions that occur. This type of research holds promise in providing guidance for the development of better and more efficient biomedical technologies, as well as for innovative disease treatments.

Vanessa Ortiz applies the fundamentals of physics and engineering to understand biological phenomena. She works to describe these phenomena with a multi-scale hierarchical modeling approach, rooted in the use of advanced, state-of-the-art sampling methods, to investigate the behavior of nucleic acids in solution and when in contact with other macromolecules (proteins, nanotubes), surfaces, or assemblies (membranes). Using these models, she is able to predict how a physical system will behave under different conditions, helping scientists draw closer to devising therapies that can treat or even prevent disease.

Her primary research interests are in the development and application of advanced multi-scale computational modeling techniques for the study of biological macromolecules. The goal is to provide insight into the molecular mechanisms that drive assembly in biology, thereby providing guidance for development of better and more efficient biomedical and environmental sensing technologies. In particular, Ortiz concentrates on developing the use of nucleic acids for templating directed organization of nanomaterials, including biomolecules, templating of inorganics, and approaches combining preformed and template materials for use in the areas of nanotechnology and materials.

She has been instrumental in investigating the stability under stress of cytoskeletal proteins and in understanding the stability of diblock copolymer vesicles and worm-like micelles as a function of different design parameters for the development of efficient drug carriers.

B.S.E., University of Puerto Rico, 2002; Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 2007

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