Simplifying science

Think back to when you were taking chemistry or biology class in school, when an instructor was trying to describe to you the components of a particular compound, protein or chemical.

For most of us, it was difficult to picture what water molecules or DNA actually looked like, and even more difficult to explain how different compounds were formed or how they reacted with one another.

The Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Center for BioMolecular Modeling and its sister company, 3-D Molecular Designs, makes it easier to learn the composition and the research of a chemical compound or protein by creating three-dimensional models of proteins or compounds.

Timothy Herman, director at the Center for BioMolecular Modeling, developed the center at MSOE in close collaboration with the school’s Rapid Prototyping Center.

“Nine years ago I was at a research symposium in Miami, and I noticed at someone’s exhibit a very crude physical model of a piece of a protein,” Herman said. “I realized that there was no good way to develop a physically accurate depiction of that model, and what resulted was this distant model encased in plastic that you couldn’t even touch.”

Herman worked with the Rapid Prototyping Center at MSOE and created a prototype to develop the models using atomic coordinates.”

“We took some of our models to a research meeting, and even we were surprised by the reaction we got,” Herman said.

Because of the positive response, Herman opened the Center for BioMolecular Modeling on the MSOE campus in 1999.

Over the next couple of years the center began creating physical models of proteins for education and research outreach.

The center even created a model of Wauwatosa native Thomas Steitz’s ribosome research which earned him and two others on his team the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The 3-D models show how different antibiotics bind to the ribosome, and are now used by scientists in order to develop new antibiotics.

3-D Molecular Designs was developed in order to commercialize models for research and education. Herman’s wife, Diane Herman, runs that company.

“We realized that educators were frustrated with their inability to engage students in the sciences,” Diane said. “Using our rapid prototyping technology we could make these models come to life and put them directly in their hands.”

The company develops educational materials for high school and collegiate classrooms as well as custom models for researchers, and also has developed software that allows researchers and teachers to design and build their own models that can be fed back to the company to build.

“The center and the company work very closely together,” said Timothy Herman. “It’s nice that it works that way, we definitely have a niche here, and we are the only people doing this kind of thing.”

3-D Molecular Design’s biggest seller is its magnetic water kit, which includes models of water molecules, sodium, chloride, ethane and a hydroxyl group. Each molecule contains a magnet so students can join molecules to make “liquid” water, ice or compounds using ethane, chloride and sodium.

“The magnets make it possible to see the positive and negative charges of the molecules,” Diane said. “It allows the students to actually see the relationship rather than just talking about it hypothetically.”

The models are all made in the Rapid Prototyping Center at MSOE or at Imperial Tool & Plastics Corporation in Greendale.

3-D Molecular Designs has two distributors in the United States, plus one in the United Kingdom and one in Australia.

Instructor outreach programs are conducted at the center during the summer and “SMART Teams” of students are popping up across the nation and globally. SMART, or Students Modeling A Research Project are groups of high school students who use the technology available with the model developing software to research and create models for researchers and other advancements.

According to Timothy, the company has been asked to form SMART teams all over the nation as well as in the U.K. and Israel.

“Through the SMART team program, students and teachers are able to interact with the technology in ways that they never could before,” Herman said. “It’s remarkable to see what this technology and the program does for kids lives. It brings the science to a level they can fully understand and learn to enjoy.”

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