A Winding Road to Research

October 11, 2019

BMBB graduate student Joe Heili’s path to a Ph.D. has moved him around the University, but it hasn’t held him back from national accolades. 

Joe Heili
Joe Heili’s self-described “circuitous” Ph.D. path has moved him from CBS undergraduate to national acclaimed graduate student in a matter of years. The Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics completed his undergraduate degree in biology from CBS in 2011 before working in the Veterinary Diagnostics PCR Laboratory at the University for five years. While working there, he got his master’s degree in biological science from the U of M, later moving into a research and technician position in Aaron Engelhart’s lab before starting his current role as a  Ph.D. candidate, also under Dr. Engelhart.

Despite a number of stops on campus, Heili’s work as a graduate student has already brought him some serious research accoldates. Heili studies fluorescent aptamers — single-stranded DNA or RNA that can display fluorescent light when bound to a target molecule — and their potential application in cancer research and other diseases. His work recently helped him land a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, a prestigious award given by the Department of Defense to train scientists and engineers. We recently caught up with Heili to hear about his research and what impact being named a NDSEG fellow had on him.

What does it mean to you to receive a NDSEG Fellowship? 
I was stunned when I received the news. My coworker was looking over my shoulder and pointed out an email I had glossed over and said "You need to open that!" Receiving this fellowship means a great deal to me because it strengthens our lab as a whole. We are a team, so whenever we can secure funding for our projects and aspirations, it helps everyone. I hope that this award, coupled with other impressive awards received by my coworkers, can give the lab greater flexibility to both expand our personnel and attempt more impactful, daring solutions to the issues we set out to resolve.

What are you currently researching and what drew you to study that area? 
Currently my work is focused on functional RNAs. This area is exciting for a number of reasons that mostly fall into the categories of origins of life research and creation of synthetic cells. The origins of life implications are that if we can show that RNAs both allow for a heritable information storage and functional structure upon which Darwinian selection may act, we will show support for the RNA World hypothesis. 

I find the field of synthetic biology to be exciting, as we are attempting to create the first completely artificially assembled cell. Specifically, my research goals are two-fold: I hope to improve upon current methods of cellular imaging using fluorescent RNA aptamers, and I hope to discover a method of controlling the function of structured RNAs "at the flip of a switch" so to speak. These two projects help us to probe molecular biology, better understanding how cellular life works and improving our ability to mimic or modify it.

You have a long history at the U of M. How did your time in CBS help prepare you for your current role? 
I am grateful for each experience along the way that left me with a skill or lesson I likely wouldn't have learned otherwise. My undergrad and masters in CBS both were invaluable for gaining the knowledge necessary to tackle the projects I am attempting here in the Engelhart lab, and my time spent at the Veterinary Diagnostics Lab honed the laboratory bench skill sets that I need for my experiments to work. 

What are your career aspirations? 
I hope to mesh the diverse background of my education and work history into a unique and growing field when I am done with the BMBB graduate program. My masters degree focus was in the "molecular biology of food production systems," which aimed at solving the problem of factory field farming inefficiency. The way we feed the ever-growing human population is one of the central issues affecting climate change. I want to leverage my experience with synthetic biology to create a synthetic biofilter for aquaculture and aquaponics systems. These systems have the potential to completely reinvent the way we feed our urban centers, growing fish and vegetables in abandoned industrial space. I am hoping that developing synthetic biofiltration and highly automated systems will allow for an efficiency in food production we have never realized before!