When Ashley Carter opens the door to her lab, the first thing she does is greet two students hard at work. One has just wrapped up a coding exercise, during which he programmed a game of tic-tac-toe. The other is engrossed in analyzing data, trying to spot specific patterns in the movements of molecules.
To work with Carter, an assistant professor of physics at Amherst, and understand the movements of the DNA molecules that she studies, the students must be versed in not only scientific techniques but also in creative problem solving.
“My lab is very interdisciplinary,” she said. “We have to know biology and we have to know physics…Because we’re essentially studying the mechanics, the movements, of DNA folding.”
Carter has made it a personal goal to commit to projects only if they offer a wide range of benefits: for her students, her department, Amherst College, the associations she belongs to, her areas of research, her teaching and her science as a whole.
These projects include scientific outreach projects to create so-called "plug and play" training modules for other researchers, which introduce students to concepts such as Brownian motion—the erratic way particles move in liquid. She has also worked with Amherst's Association of Women in Science to promote STEM majors (science, technology, engineering and math) to women, and helped organize an Amherst-based peer mentoring alliance.
Carter said that the students start by completing the training modules in her lab and then help and improve the modules when they’re done.
Carter’s interests in biophysics research, coupled with her efforts to recruit and train new students in her field, led the National Science Foundation to recently award her a five-year, $500,000 grant through the Faculty Early Career Development Program.
Part of the award supports her scientific research on DNA folding. The rest supports her broader goals, namely the gamut of programs and efforts that encourage students to move from scientific basics to science-related majors and research opportunities. In Carter’s laboratory, the grant funding will financially support a post-baccalaureate researcher and undergraduates each summer for the next five years.
Carter’s research focuses on nano-level questions, such as how proteins cause DNA to self-assemble into specific shapes. Other scientists have investigated similar questions—and have figured out how to fold DNA like origami into smiley faces, stars and polyhedrons. Carter’s work focuses specifically on the way proteins fold and unfold DNA in sperm cells.
Carter noted that the folding was very dramatic and required a very small, positively charged protein to coat the DNA and wrap it into loops.
“How that happens, that’s what we’re trying to figure out,” she said.
Understanding how DNA self-assembles at the molecular level, and being able to configure it into tiny tools such as hinges or levers, has potential applications for a wide range of fields, from nanoengineering to biophysics.
Much of her upcoming research will involve analyzing large amounts of data, looking for patterns. In Carter’s lab, students such as Obinna Ukogu ’18 have been analyzing videos of DNA molecules folding and using the resulting data to create graphical data displays known as histograms.
“If you have the patience to sit with problems for a long time then you sort of gravitate towards it,” Ukogu said of the research.
“Doing research in this capacity has convinced me I do want to do research as a career in some shape or form,” he adds. “Finding the exact shape of research, what I would like to delve into, is the question I’m really trying to answer now.”