New SEH Lab and Multi-Million-Dollar Grant to Combat Chemical Threats Ushers in New Opportunities for Innovation, Discovery
By John DiConsiglio
In 1991, Akos Vertes arrived on campus as a freshly hired young associate professor and analytical chemist. He was anxious to escape the creatively stifling atmosphere of the Cold War-era Hungarian science labs where he’d begun his career. At GW, there would be no prying eyes watching over his shoulder at each experiment. There would be no more navigating back channels to procure embargoed equipment. The only limits to his work would be his own imagination.
And, perhaps, his new work space. His initial small lab on the third-floor of Corcoran Hall was virtually empty, he recalled. Even after stocking it with the basic microscopes and test tubes he’d need to further his burgeoning research on protein molecules, he still faced a crucial problem: He couldn’t turn anything on.
“We weren’t wired up,” Vertes said. “There was no internet access. No nothing.” Shedding his white lab coat, Vertes had to crawl inside the Corcoran Hall ceiling panels, stringing a web of coaxial cables. “It wasn’t long,” he laughed, “before we outgrew that space.”
Twenty years, 13 patents, three labs and scores of awards later, it’s safe to say that Vertes' ceiling-crawling days are behind him. Today, he’s ranked among the scientific community’s most accomplished inventors. His work has revolutionized the world of biochemistry, widening the scope of research on everything from cancer treatments to the roots of autism. He’s a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, a recipient of the Oscar and Shoshana Trachtenberg Prize for Scholarship and a winner of the Chemical Society of Washington’s prestigious Hillebrand Award. Along the way, he’s garnered major research grants from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and, most recently, a $14.6 million award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“Akos is an outstanding scientist,” said Michael King, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “He’s part of our linage of award-winning chemists, carrying on a tradition of individual stars whose presence lifts up the entire department—really the entire university.”
And now, Vertes is embarking on his next big transition. He’s packing his lasers and spectrometers and moving to the state-of-the-art laboratories and teaching facilities of the new Science and Engineering Hall (SEH). As his work grows more celebrated and complex—and his eponymous research group swells to dozens of postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate students—the 290,000-square foot SEH gives Vertes and other researchers more room to expand their projects, their teams and their ideas.
“My time at GW has been a wonderful progression, from new concepts and new discoveries and now a new infrastructure,” Vertes said. “There’s really no limit to where we can go next.”
A Biochemistry Holy Grail
Vertes was bitten by “the science bug,” as he put it, in his Hungarian elementary school. When a classmate suggested trying to dissolve iron with hydrochloric acid, Vertes took his first step toward a lifelong fascination with experimentation and discovery. “It became a lifestyle,” he said. “Even today, I’m thinking all the time. I can’t slow down my brain. I’m always looking for ways to push forward.”
After teaching at both Notre Dame and the University of Antwerp in Belgium, GW came calling. “We were looking for a good analytical chemist, but they are in very short supply,” King said. “We were fortunate to find somebody of his caliber. His career was just starting but you could tell he was going to take off.”
Vertes’s research arc has led him to pursue a biochemistry Holy Grail: a method for rapidly studying small samples and individual cells as they exist in their native environment. Historically, in-depth examination of biological materials has been laborious, time-consuming and often inexact; it requires collecting large samples by extracting them from their natural state. “The problem is that the sample has been manipulated,” Vertes explained. “You’re studying something that may or may not relate to the original cell.”
In search of a better method, Vertes has connected the dots between successive discoveries, technology and innovation, resulting in one breakthrough building on the back of another. First, Vertes’s protein microscope enabled researchers to study how macromolecules interact with living tissue—a process that has advanced the understanding of neurodegenerative conditions like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). That development led directly to his renowned Laser Ablation Electrospray Ionization (LAESI), a streamlined method for quickly and effectively identifying a substance’s chemical composition from a limited amount of biological material.
Each new advancement has achieved accolades and new funding coups. The 2004 development of the protein microscope was supported by a $1.5 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation. And LAESI—Vertes and his students pronounce it “lazy”—was an innovative sensation, lauded by both the scientific and commercial research worlds. Among the early subscribers were researchers from the pharmaceutical industry, who use LAESI to more quickly test whether a drug had actually reached targeted cells. (In 2011, LAESI was ranked among the 100 most technologically significant products of the year by R&D Magazine, and named a top 10 innovation of 2011 by The Scientist.)
Vertes’s next challenge may be his most daunting yet: the DARPA project, which tasks his team to develop for the Department of Defense a method to rapidly identify the root of biological and chemical threats, thereby bolstering national security efforts in combating future terrorist dangers. Building on the LAESI technology, Vertes is working to map the mechanism of action of toxic agents like anthrax. By doing so, he can then devise a process for detecting threats in a matter of days rather than months or even years. “This is an enormously difficult task,” he conceded. “The tension is very high because, by design, the clock is ticking.”
Collaboration, Motivation, Direction
On a typical day in Vertes’ Corcoran Hall lab, a dozen student research assistants dart between pieces of highly-sophisticated equipment, from mass spectrometry devices to lasers and electrosprays. Tarek Mansour, a 2014 chemistry and biology graduate, could have spent the summer before medical school relaxing on the beach, but chose to huddle in the lab, using the LAESI to study microalgae. “It’s not every day you get a chance to work with the guy who invented all this,” Mansour said.
Sylwia Stopka, a third-year graduate student in chemistry, didn’t hesitate when Vertes offered her a spot on his team. “It was an easy decision,” she said. “The atmosphere, the people, the discoveries he’s making, the opportunities open for me. I can’t find this anywhere else.”
The move to the Science and Engineering Hall promises to bolster the cutting-edge research for a professor who once ran wires from ceiling panels to computer ports. New imaging facilities and a “clean room” where scientists and students can make their own nanostructures will enable his team to conduct more onsite experiments rather than carting their samples off-campus. And Vertes says he’s looking forward to comparing notes with neighboring scientists from microbiologists to nuclear physicists. “Science is all about collaboration. It’s what gives us motivation and direction.”
But perhaps the greatest benefit of the new facility will be the opportunities it opens up for his most important resource: students. For Vertes, their involvement is a vital aspect of scientific research. Many of his student assistants co-author scholarly journal articles and nearly all Vertes’ patents list students as co-inventors. Graduate and undergraduate students know that a Vertes assistantship is often a stepping stone to high-level positions in academic or commercial research.
But no one said it would be easy.
“I’m very demanding,” Vertes insisted. “Some students will not succeed in this environment, but I firmly believe that if you want to stay ahead of the pack, you must give the best of yourself.”
Pictured above: Akos Vertes, with research assistants Tarek Mansour, BA ’14, and graduate student Sylwia Stopka