Chemistry Faculty Member Explores DNA and Nanotech in Latest Research Project

DNA and nanotech
Image: Bill Hager

DNA, the molecule that contains all of our genetic information, could also be the future of nanotechnology, according to a paper recently published by a research team headed by Julio Palma, a chemistry faculty member at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus.

A theoretical and computational chemist, Palma arrived at the Fayette campus in fall 2016 to serve as an assistant professor. Outside the classroom, his research involves the study of molecules and their application in alternative energy sources and nanotechnology.

DNA has the ability to function as an electronic device, and Palma was recently in charge of theoretical development for a project in which researchers modified DNA sequences to control the flow of electricity, making them function as an electrical switch. This scientific contribution was published in the article “Gate-controlled conductance switching in DNA” in the February 2017 edition of Nature Communications, an open-access, multidisciplinary journal containing high-quality research that represents advances of significance to specialists in the biological, physical, chemical and Earth sciences.

In another article published last fall, Palma was part of a team that studied electron transport through a hydrogen-bonded system, finding that, for a family of structurally connected molecules, the conductance decreases as molecular polarizability increases. The results of this research appeared in the article “Polarizability as a Molecular Descriptor for Conductance in Organic Molecular Circuits,” which was published in the October 2016 issue of The Journal of Physical Chemistry.

Palma encourages his students at Penn State Fayette to conduct research, and is currently working on separate projects with Anastazia Polakovsky, Janai Showman and Jaira Wells, all three of whom will present their findings at the upcoming campus Learning Fair.

It is never too early to begin scientific research, according to Palma, who knows firsthand that it can greatly benefit undergraduate students. “Research experience allows students to reinforce concepts that they learn in their classrooms, to improve their critical-thinking skills, to acquire knowledge that is not taught in traditional courses, and have the opportunity to research a specific topic nobody has studied before,” he said.

Palma added that having experience with research can also influence students in their decision to pursue a higher degree. “I am excited and proud to be at Penn State Fayette working with three talented students,” he said, “and I am eager to continue developing new opportunities in the future so more students can have the chance to learn and grow from participating in research.”