Alumni Spotlight, Featuring Noah Dunham
In this edition of BMB’s Alumni Spotlight, we feature Noah Dunham, Ph.D.
Noah is currently a Senior Scientist at Merck. He attended East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania to pursue his undergraduate education and graduated in 2013 with his Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. Upon graduating with his degree Noah worked as a Quality Chemist at BioSpectra, Inc, developing analytical chemistry methods for new products and performing analytical testing on raw material, in process, and in finished good samples.
Wanting to pursue his education further, Noah made his way to Central Pennsylvania and entered the Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program. Noah conducted his research under the mentorship of Professors of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Carsten Krebs and Martin Bollinger, as well as Associate Professor of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Amie Boal. His research focused on uncovering the mechanisms of the diverse Fe(II)- and 2-oxoglutarate-dependent oxygenase superfamily. Through his work, he was able to acquire skills in molecular biology, protein purification, analytical biochemistry, transient enzyme kinetics, chemical synthesis, and x-ray crystallography, and in 2018 earned his Ph.D.
Traveling across the country, Noah conducted his postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. Under the advisement of Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, Frances Arnold, Noah’s work focused on engineering enzymes for non-natural functions through directed evolution.
Recently, Noah accepted his new position with Merck and resides in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Let’s chat with Noah, talk about his experiences while at Penn State, and catch up with what he’s been up to.
What is it that you do at Merck?
I conduct research in the field of biocatalysis, which is at the crossroads of biochemistry and organic synthesis. The overall goal of this type of work is to apply biological catalysts (enzymes) to the synthesis of molecules that are useful to human pursuits (i.e. drugs, biofuels, specialty chemicals, etc.). Enzymes offer significant advantages over many traditional small-molecule catalysts, are genetically programmable (important for engineering), and operate in aqueous conditions. Taken together, enzymes are a powerful addition to the chemist's synthetic toolbox. During my postdoc in the Arnold Lab at Caltech, I worked on developing new enzymatic reactions through protein engineering. At Merck, my work will be more application focused. Generally, enzymes are leveraged for more efficient syntheses of specific drug compounds, which will help lower the cost and accessibility of the final products.
What was it that made you want to come to Penn State, and BMB, to pursue your education?
When applying to graduate schools, I had broad interests in the fields of biochemistry and synthetic chemistry. At Penn State, I noticed many professors had joint appointments in the BMB and Chemistry departments, which suggested that I would have a good chance of finding a lab that satisfied all of my interests. Additionally, a supergroup at Penn State is well known for cultivating a uniquely collaborative environment in the field of mechanistic enzymology, which I ended up joining and finding much success personally and professionally.
How do you feel Penn State, and BMB, prepared you for your current position or career?
I was a joint student between the labs of Marty Bollinger, Amie Boal, and Carsten Krebs during my time in graduate school. In the four years I spent under their mentorship, I went from knowing little more than was taught in the textbooks to becoming a successful researcher with multiple respected publications. And their mentorship did not cease at graduation. They helped me obtain a fantastic postdoc with a famous professor, and then land the job I will be starting at Merck. Overall, I have only good things to say about the training I received at Penn State.
Did you conduct research while at Penn State? Where was your research conducted and what was its focus?
I conducted research in the labs of Marty Bollinger, Amie Boal, and Carsten Krebs. As I mentioned above, these labs are a part of a highly collaborative 'supergroup' in the BMB and Chemistry departments that study mechanistic enzymology (understanding how enzymes work at a very deep level). Specifically, my work was focused on understanding how a family of metalloenzymes (Fe and 2-oxoglutarate-dependent oxygenases) catalyze challenging reactions by activating otherwise chemically inert C–H bonds. This family of enzymes has experienced a rapidly growing interest for use in pharmaceutical and industrial applications.
Share at least one interesting/fun fact about yourself.
I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2017 while I was in graduate school. Outside of the interesting work, graduate school can be a great time to do fun things (depending on who you work for, I suppose—experiences certainly vary).
The flexibility in my schedule allowed me to plan this trek in Tanzania with a group of friends that would probably have been more difficult had I been in a more traditional job.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
Outside of work, I like to play sports (mostly volleyball and basketball, but sometimes flag football), rock climb, hike, and ballroom dance.
Once a Nittany Lion, Always a Nittany Lion! We Are Penn State
I can't say I have a specific 'We Are Moment.' However, I will say that I have bumped into other Penn State alumni all around the country, even while I was in California. Also, after just moving to Hoboken, NJ, I noticed there is a Penn State bar right downtown, which I will certainly check out.
Advice from Noah to future generations of scientists:
For graduate students pursuing a Ph. D. and a career as a scientific researcher, my biggest piece of advice is to read, read, and read some more. When conducting original research, one of the biggest challenges is to ask the right/most important questions. To do this, one must have a firm grasp on what are the current challenges in the field, and what has already been conquered. Sharpening your perspective on your field of interest is a lifelong pursuit that requires continuous efforts in reading and writing. Mastering these will serve you well in both academic and industrial positions.