UNM computer science professor turns molecules into awards

Lydia Tapia first became interested in molecular assembly on membranes after attending a lecture at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in 2011. Five years later, her work in the field of molecular assembly in allergens contributed to a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2016 that provides five years of funding for her research. Most recently, Tapia in May was named the 2017 winner of the Borg Early Career Award.

To fully understand the NSF career award, you have to look further back in Tapia’s life, back to when she first became interested in STEM.

“Even as a kid I was always trying to learn about technology and video games,” Tapia said. “My dad bought me my first computer, a Commodore 128, and I was intrigued by how it worked, especially the large floppy disks that it required.”

This early interest grew into a passion for Tapia and she ended up participating in a program at Sandia National Labs where she was able to learn about computers and programming.

“When I started my undergraduate career at Tulane, I wanted to be a biomedical engineer,” Tapia said. “But I was taking computer science classes at the same time and ended up switching to graduate with a degree in computer science.”

After Tapia received her bachelors from Tulane, she continuened her studies, receiving a doctorate in computer science from Texas A&M University and completing postdoctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin.

After finishing that work, Tapia came back home to Albuquerque to teach at UNM.

“Early on when I was at UNM I went to hear a lecture at the medical school about the molecular interaction process, and I it was like a lightbulb turned on,” Tapia said.

“I left the lecture thinking that an initial simulation was something my undergraduates could do in a summer, but it ended up being a lot bigger of a project than I had expected.”

With help from Tapia and a graduate researcher, it took the team nearly a year to have the first simulations. The simulation method was used for a patent application that designed a hypoallergen, a modification of a common shrimp allergen, that is expected to reduce allergic response.  “To make it simple, say you were allergic to shrimp,” Tapia said. “We could give you a shrimp-like hypoallergen so that your antibodies would be kept busy and you could eat the shrimp without having a reaction.”

UNM computer science professor Lydia Tapia, right, tells about her experiences working with the NSF as a Career Award winner during a panel Feb. 16 at the Student Union Building. Photo by Noah Michelsohn / Advance at UNM

Tapia has also secured a patent for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) during her time at UNM. This patent came from her initial work with multi-rotor engines to fly a suspended load and maintain flight even in the event of a rotor losing power.

“The work that we are able to do is special because it provides opportunities for undergraduate students to be participating in thesis level research,” Tapia said. “The students make it so much more fun and they bring a lot of time and dedication to the projects.”

This passion to work with students contributed to Tapia receiving the NSF CAREER award, which is awarded for research as well as educational innovation. Tapia has found students to work with from many places such as classes she has taught, mentoring programs or other departments across the university.

“I have been spoiled from the start with amazing students to work with,” Tapia said. “Early in my time at UNM, I identified a student who was doing really well in coursework, and I asked him about doing research in my lab.”

With Tapia’s guidance, the student did year-round research in Tapia’s lab and also attended a dynamics summer school in Los Alamos at the national laboratory. Because of his research, he graduated with publications and full funding for his Ph.D. from multiple schools.

“What made him so successful is that he was always willing to take opportunities,” Tapia said. “He had an incredible work ethic and set himself up for an unbelievably bright future.”

The relationships that Tapia has built at UNM has built her success. She contributes so much of her success to the collaboration across UNM and looks forward to continuing her research at the university.

“I can’t do everything I do by myself,” Tapia said. “Having the experimentalists, the biologists, the mechanical and electrical engineers is what allows us to be successful. UNM is the place to do this work because everyone is willing to work together and do amazing work.”

UNM computer science professor Lydia Tapia, second from right, poses with research team members who worked on an NSF National Robotics Initiative Grant with her in 2015. Photo courtesy Lydia Tapia.