A Nanoscale Perspective: 2016 Boettcher Investigator Schuyler van Engelenburg

A Nanoscale Perspective: 2016 Boettcher Investigator Schuyler van Engelenburg

2016 Boettcher Investigator Schuyler van Engelenburg has an audacious goal: understanding and disrupting Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

“HIV is one of the most studied viruses in the world, so some people discouraged me from entering such a concentrated research field,” said Schuyler. However, imaging techniques utilized in Schuyler’s lab at the University of Denver have demonstrated potential for how HIV and genetic diseases can be treated.

With support from a Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Award from the Boettcher Foundation, Schuyler has refined the use of super-resolution microscopy in HIV, an imaging technique that won two Americans the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2014. Using high-power light microscopes, Schuyler flags and tracks the movement of single HIV molecules within living infected cells. A high-resolution image is created by combining images in which different molecules are activated, enabling a much clearer picture of previously unobserved viral infection pathways.

“We’re bringing a technical, optical, and computational approach to quantitatively describe how viral assembly works. Or if you’re an artist, think of the imaging as a type of pointillism. Except instead of coming into view as you step back, this sub-viral resolution is crossing the micro scale frontier of what was previously visible,” explained Schuyler. “If successful, we should then be able to either prevent the virus from ever assembling or harness the virus to deliver corrective genes to patients’ cells who are suffering from genetic diseases.”

A native of New Castle on Colorado’s western slope, Schuyler earned a bachelor’s in chemistry from Fort Lewis College and graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, where he studied cell biology and optics under National Academy of Sciences member Dr. Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz.

Schuyler’s experience at NIH was transformative, but he has enjoyed returning to Colorado, where, as an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Denver, he is able to teach and mentor the next generation of interdisciplinary biomedical researchers.

“I’m excited by the thought of coming up with new technology and applying it to understand how our cells work at the molecular level. But all the while I want to mentor the next best and brightest scientists who can hopefully go on to make an impact on our understanding of biology in health and disease,” noted Schuyler. “That includes undergraduate [Boettcher] Scholars who have been a great asset in my lab.”

When asked if working with the smallest particles in the world was constrictive, Schuyler noted that his work was remarkably similar to astrophysics and astronomers in search of macro understanding.

“In many ways, microscopy is riding on the tail of astronomers, who have led the research to see beyond what we can even imagine. The infinitesimally large universe and the inconceivably small nanoscale particles are ordered more similarly than we recognize. My work lends a perspective on the rules of bioassembly on this nanoscale.”

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