Auburn Engineering faculty member wins NSF CAREER Award for protein structure work

By Chris Anthony

Published: Jun 18, 2020 2:17:00 PM

Debswapna Bhattacharya Debswapna Bhattacharya

Assistant professor Debswapna Bhattacharya has received the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award for early-career researchers.

Bhattacharya, a computer science and software engineering researcher, has been awarded $557,340 to support his work in protein structure prediction, a scientific field where computational modeling can be used to determine the three-dimensional structure of proteins. Through this project, he will develop novel computational and data-driven methods to substantially improve protein structure refinement, bringing protein models closer to biologically relevant experimental accuracy.

“Structural biology has entered an era of computational modeling,” Bhattacharya said. “Computational models serve as vehicles for studying the structure and dynamics of complex biological macromolecules, such as proteins, to better understand the properties and mechanisms of cells. As such, it is critically important for computationally predicted protein models to reach atomic-level accuracy to be useful in fundamental research."

Bhattacharya will also develop and publicly disseminate an open-access bioinformatics research infrastructure that will advance basic biological research. This interdisciplinary project has a deep commitment to enriching knowledge in biomolecular simulation and refinement, benefiting researchers and students in multiple communities at the interface of computing and biology. 

The project facilitates simulation-based learning through the development of PolyFold, a visual simulator for interactive protein structure manipulation and refinement, with an inclusive commitment to engage the general public in science and technology.

“I am thrilled that Deb has been honored with this very prestigious award,” said Hari Narayanan, chair of the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering. “The department has worked diligently to bring in talented and driven junior faculty like Deb. This award is a testament to the tremendous research program he has built and the potential it has in advancing computational biology and bioinformatics.”

Results of Bhattacharya’s project, including the open access bioinformatics research and educational resources, will be published at eng.auburn.edu/~dzb0050.

Bhattacharya joined the Auburn Engineering faculty in 2017 as part of Auburn University’s strategic hiring cluster in omics and informatics. He was recognized as the Outstanding Faculty Award winner for the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering in 2019. In 2018, Bhattacharya’s research group earned international acclaim when it placed No. 9 in the world in the Community Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction.

The NSF CAREER Award is one of the foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.

Bhattacharya is the fifth Auburn Engineering faculty member to receive the award in the past year, joining Lauren Beckingham, Majid Beidaghi, Pengyu Chen and David Roueche.

Bhattacharya also joins a roster of four other NSF CAREER winners in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, including Richard Chapman, Alvin Lim, Xiao Qin and Jakita Thomas.

Media Contact: Chris Anthony, chris.anthony@auburn.edu, 334.844.3447

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