Schuster Lab studies and engineers innovative biomolecular materials with biotechnological and biomedical applications
Assistant professor of chemical and biochemical engineering Benjamin Schuster established the Schuster Lab upon joining the Rutgers University School of Engineering faculty in 2019. His lab studies and engineers biomolecular materials, with a particular focus on developing novel protein-based materials for applications in biomanufacturing and understanding human disease.
Despite challenges posed by the pandemic, Schuster is continuing to make progress with his research. Working with a team of doctoral, masters, and undergraduate students, he is studying the self-assembly of protein molecules via liquid-liquid phase separation – a phenomenon that cells in humans and other organisms require for their normal function. Yet when this process goes awry, it is linked to numerous diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS and Alzheimer’s. An understanding of how and why these proteins assemble offers academic and industry researchers invaluable insights into their roles in health – and disease. By manipulating these proteins, Schuster’s team is engineering innovative biotechnologies for biopharmaceutical manufacturing, therapeutic drug delivery, and biocatalysis. To conduct this research, the lab uses a variety of approaches, including quantitative confocal microscopy and recombinant DNA technology.
A dedicated teacher, Schuster is gratified when he inspires students to learn more about biochemical engineering and even choose it as a career path. Striving to connect classroom learning with everyday life, he explains that nearly everything taught in biochemical engineering is directly relevant to the current global challenge of developing and manufacturing a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19. As a result, he is incorporating specific COVID-19 vaccine lessons into upcoming classes.
Four Questions for Prof. Benjamin Schuster
1. What sparked your initial interest in engineering and what led to your current research interests?
Since early in my undergraduate days, I’ve been fascinated with applying approaches from engineering, math, and chemistry to understand biology and develop new biotechnologies.
My current research interest is in the area of protein phase separation, a field that was just starting to take off during the first year of my postdoc. When I first heard about it, I knew that this was something I wanted to focus on. It ties together many areas of science and engineering that are not only interesting to study, but also have the potential to underpin new biotechnology breakthroughs.
As a case in point, we are collaborating on a project with Merck that is applying our phase-separating proteins to develop technologies for purifying and enhancing the function of enzymes used in the biosynthesis of pharmaceuticals.
2. What most excites and inspires you about your research?
The system that we’re studying is full of surprises and many of our experiments give interesting results, even if they’re not what we originally expected. Sometimes we look at specimens under the microscope and see exactly what we expected. At other times, it’s a surprise. For instance, sometimes seemingly minor changes to a protein sequence will completely change how it self-assembles.
Some of our research is basic-science oriented, and some of it is focused on applications in biomanufacturing and biocatalysis, which go hand-in-hand in our lab. I’m excited both by the basic science and also by the potentially broad applications to the biopharmaceutical industry.
3. Who will most benefit from your research results?
Everyone, I hope! My goal is that the biotechnologies we’re working on will aid in the development and manufacturing of effective and cost-effective new medicines. And some of our basic research will, I hope, shed light on self-assembly processes that are always occurring in our cells.
4. How are Rutgers students contributing to the work being done in your lab?
Everything we’ve accomplished as a lab so far is thanks to Rutgers students! It’s been fun to see the first of graduate and undergraduate students in the lab master techniques and make fascinating discoveries while helping them navigate the process of research. While lately the coronavirus pandemic has unfortunately shut the undergrads out of the lab, the graduate students are back in action.