Talented ASU School of Molecular Sciences alumnus returns for a talk

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November 1, 2021

On a recent chilly Friday afternoon, former ASU student Josh Vermaas came full circle, delivering the School of Molecular Sciencesweekly seminar in the Biodesign auditorium. Vermaas received degrees in biochemistry, physics, and computational mathematics from Arizona State University in 2010.

“I really appreciate the experiences I had at ASU, interacting with the faculty to explore different directions my career could take,” said Vermaas.

Josh Vermaas, assistant professor at Michigan State University and alumnus of the ASU School of Molecular Sciences and the Department of Physics. Photo by Mary Zhu / ASU

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After obtaining a doctorate in biophysics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a post-doctorate at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, Vermaas is currently an assistant professor at Michigan State University.

Deciding to become an academic is intimidating for anyone, but as the son of an academic Vermaas was already well acquainted with the trials and tribulations involved. Intrepid, he took the plunge, as an assistant professor at the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State University from January 2021.

Vermaas said his advice to undergraduates and graduate students is that networking has really helped him move through the stages of his career: from undergraduate to PhD to postdoctoral and then Michigan State. University. Knowing certain people made things a lot easier, he said.

“Josh is a very enthusiastic young colleague whose work on the catalysis of materials, and not just molecules, has earned him a special place at the intersection of the biophysical and energy science community,” said Abhishek Singharoy, assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences.

While studying Physics 151 at ASU, Vermaas learned the Python programming language and leveraged it in his Distinction Project with Professor Ian Gould, Associate Director of the School of Molecular Sciences. He developed an infrared simulator, which showed how different chemical bonds vibrate at different frequencies.

Vermaas has been involved in various research as an undergraduate student at ASU with Professors Bruce Doak (now in Germany) and Kevin Schmidt, in the Department of Physics. He also participated in nanothermodynamics simulations with Professors Ralph Chamberlin (Physics) and George Wolf (School of Molecular Sciences).

Vermaas said the mixture of research experiments taught him that he was prone to smashing objects in the lab, so he took that as a sign that he was supposed to be doing computer simulations instead.

Image of Vermaas

Lipid bilayers are semi-permeable to small molecules, such as the guaiacol molecules shown here. To emphasize the biological context, electron micrograph images of the bacteria have been overlaid on the rendering of the model. Image credit: Josh Vermaas.

As a computational biophysicist, Vermaas applies emerging molecular simulation techniques to study photosynthesis, plant metabolism, and biomaterials.

Vermaas’ lab uses atomic simulation tools to create precise molecular-scale models of biological phenomena at the nanoscale. In this form of computer microscopy, Newton’s equations of motion follow the atomic positions of a system over time. Dynamic simulations offer a unique perspective to better understand the connection between form and function of nanostructures found throughout biology. Information from these simulations can then be applied to engineering factories or microbes to facilitate efficient energy conversion and bioproduct production to meet current sustainability challenges.


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