Camille Bilodeau understands better than most how even the smallest atom can have a big impact. For nearly four years, on any given day, she could be found within the brightly lit halls of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies staring at her computer as she modeled the interactions of hundreds of thousands of atoms. It would not be an overstatement to refer to the research she was contributing to as “life-saving.”
As a doctoral student, Bilodeau worked with Steve Cramer, an endowed professor of chemical and biological engineering, researching the purification processes necessary for biopharmaceutical production. It is a precise and crucial step necessary to remove unwanted and potentially harmful components — that’s where the Cramer Group’s expertise lies.
“Basically, we’re trying to develop approaches to perform that separation so that you don’t have all of these impurities that realistically would kill you if they ended up in your body,” said Bilodeau, who defended her dissertation in chemical engineering earlier this spring.
Not only does the purification process ensure the safety of biopharmaceuticals, but the Cramer Group is specifically focused on making that process as efficient, dependable, and rapid as possible — a necessity if biopharmaceuticals are to be a realistic and reliable source of therapy.
Bilodeau’s modeling expertise played a critical role in determining which methods of purification may be ideal. Her colleagues were then able to focus their efforts on those approaches in the lab, saving significant time and energy.
“I’ve always loved biology. I always wanted to do something biology-related but as an undergrad I realized that I really liked the math and physics components,” Bilodeau said. “When I started at RPI, speaking with Steve Cramer, I realized he was looking for someone to do just that — someone to use physics and use math and computational modeling and apply it to this medical problem.”
Bilodeau earned the Lawrence Livermore National Lab Advanced Science and Computation Fellowship, which supported her computational research. She was mentored by Ed Lau, a computational chemist at Livermore. At Rensselaer, she was also advised by Shekhar Garde, the dean of the School of Engineering.
Her high level of achievement resulted in a number of student competition awards, including first runner-up in the three-minute thesis competition, poster awards at Lawrence Livermore National Lab and the Gordon Research Conference on water and aqueous solutions, and the best in BIOT oral presentation award at the American Chemical Society.
As she presented her research, Bilodeau said, she was struck by the sense of purpose and accomplishment she felt.
“People are listening, and people are going to use this, and people are bringing it up again in collaborative meetings. They are remembering our lab from year to year,” Bilodeau said.
Presenting her work to the research community taught Bilodeau an important lesson about the importance of communicating science. She will carry this wisdom with her as she starts a postdoc at MIT. She plans to harness her love of math and physics with the growing abilities of artificial intelligence.
“I’ll be developing graph neural networks to predict the properties of small-molecule drugs,” Bilodeau said. “Here, I’ve been focused on protein-based drugs, but there, it will be small-molecule, more traditional drugs.”
Knowing that uncovering even the smallest pieces of information could have significant value, Bilodeau will focus deeply on big data, a critical new frontier she became more familiar with during her time at Rensselaer.