The Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies first attracted Asher Williams to Rensselaer. She liked its world-class facilities and the fact that it offered the opportunity for collaborations outside of her department.
She was attracted to the field of biotechnology through her experience working as an undergraduate research assistant at NYU, helping to develop a new method of enzyme stabilization. She then worked as a research intern in the bioengineering branch at NASA Ames Research Center, developing and testing a disposable bioreactor prototype for producing carotenoids in space using an engineered yeast species. “This project piqued my interest in the idea of genetically manipulating microorganisms to convert them into miniature factories that can essentially produce whatever we want,” she said.
Williams, who graduated with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in December, focused her research on harnessing bacterial production systems to generate pain-relieving compounds through metabolic engineering.
Imagine that your elderly parent or relative is suffering from a joint disease like osteoarthritis and needs to take daily doses of the nutrient drug chondroitin sulfate to alleviate their symptoms. Would you prefer if that drug was extracted and processed from waste products in pig and cattle slaughterhouses, or carefully produced in the controlled environment of a sterile laboratory?
The sulfated carbohydrates, heparin and chondroitin sulfates, are among the top-ranked products in industrial biotechnology and are widely used as pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, and surgical aids. These drugs are traditionally extracted from animal source tissues such as porcine intestines and bovine trachea. However, animal extraction is not a sustainable option as issues including limited availability of source tissues, inherent impurities, and variability of animal-sourced products affect the quality and consistency of the product supply.
As part of ongoing efforts to separate the food chain from the drug chain, Williams concentrated on optimizing regulatory and genetic processes within cells in order to increase the cells’ production of a specific compound.
“In my work, I have engineered several non-toxic ‘smart’ bacteria that can separately generate the required components for making these drugs,” Williams said. “Some produce the raw materials, while others make specialized proteins or enzymes that convert this raw material to our desired products. From this multipart system, we can design a single microorganism that is able to use an inexpensive starting material like glucose to make our completed product via one-step microbial synthesis.”
After completing high school in Trinidad and Tobago, Williams was awarded an Open Scholarship in Science, which afforded her the opportunity to attend New York University Tandon School of Engineering to pursue her bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering.
At Rensselaer, Williams was a member of two interdisciplinary research groups co-advised by Professors Mattheos Koffas and Robert Linhardt. With funding support from the RPI Presidential Graduate Research Fellowship, she also mentored several graduate and undergraduate students, presented at research conferences, and published over 10 co-authored papers in peer-reviewed journals. She has a patent pending for her group’s novel bioengineering technology.
After graduation, Williams began an appointment as a Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Cornell University. Her current research is focused on developing a novel platform technology for manufacturing conjugate vaccines against enteric infections in young children.