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New Faculty Member Laura Dassama to Join Chemistry and ChEM-H

The Stanford Department of Chemistry and ChEM-H are excited to welcome new junior faculty member Laura Dassama. She will join the faculty at Stanford in 2018 after completing her postdoctoral studies.

Dassama is eager to collaborate with a talented group of faculty members who are exploring and advancing new chemical frontiers in a wide array of fields, from the life sciences to medicine. She noted, “Being a faculty in the Chemistry department will surround me with colleagues who are working on problems that are grounded in principles of chemistry, but have applications that span a wide range of disciplines.”

A Perfect Fit

She is especially excited about becoming a part of ChEM-H, an interdisciplinary research center that brings together faculty members from diverse backgrounds to understand life at a chemical level and apply that knowledge to improving human health.

“The institute’s goal of assembling a cohort of chemists, engineers, and physicians to work on problems related to human health is one that aligns quite well with what I hope to achieve with my work,” said Dassama.

Dassama comes to Stanford from Northwestern University, where she is currently a Kirschstein NRSA postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular Biosciences. Since 2013, she has worked in the laboratory of Professor Amy C. Rosenzweig using biophysical and structural approaches to understand how certain bacteria cells traffic natural products, chemical compounds manufactured by living organisms that are often used as antimicrobial or anticancer drugs. Her research program at Stanford will focus on the synthesis and transport of these kinds of natural products.

“I am especially interested in understanding how bacteria follow fundamental principles of chemistry to construct elaborate molecules and how we can leverage this understanding to rationally design potent natural products,” she explained.

Pre-med to Postdoc

Born in Liberia to a lawyer and a nurse, Laura developed a fascination with medicine at a young age and dreamed of becoming a doctor. While attending Temple University as an undergraduate, she abandoned her aspirations of practicing medicine after falling in love with biochemistry research. “After spending a summer working with a DNA repair enzyme, I realized that I did not want to do anything else,” she said.

After graduating from Temple in 2007, Dassama began her graduate studies at The Pennsylvania State University. At Penn State, she used transient-state kinetics and spectroscopy to understand the reaction mechanisms of enzymes that catalyze some of the most difficult chemical transformations, such as the splitting of water.

“My dissertation work primarily focused on enzymes that make DNA precursors, and my work provided insights into how these enzymes function,” Dassama explained.

Finding a Home

Dassama’s research interests have always lay at the intersection of chemistry and biology, but she has never found an interdisciplinary home - until now.

“I was always doing more biological work in a chemistry department, or the chemist in a more biological department,” she explained. “ChEM-H will feel like home, as no one here is a traditional chemist, biologist, or engineer! I am thoroughly excited to begin the next phase of my career at Stanford!”

Chaitan Khosla, a professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry and director of ChEM-H, said that he is interested in finding people with expertise in physical science or engineering while also being grounded in biology and medicine. “Laura has one foot deep in inorganic chemistry and then another foot that’s deep in microbiology, with a new slant toward basically medical problems” – exactly what ChEM-H is looking for, Khosla said.