Matt Lang is fascinated by how things work. He comes by that trait naturally. “My father is a civil engineer and he got me started making things, doing house wiring, using tools. As a Cub Scout, I won the Pinewood Derby with the car I built,” says Lang, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
The Machinery of Biology
Fast forward 30 years and Lang works at the crossroads of engineering and biology, exploring how human cells work on the single-molecule level. He has combined his passion for building with curiosity about the mechanics of cells. “We are just starting to understand biological components and how they can be combined to create new biological systems, hybrid [biological and nonbiological] systems and biologically inspired systems,” Lang says. “You can build with biology. The body’s ability to copy cells with few errors is a manufacturing feat worthy of study and imitation.”
But first comes understanding the machine language of the cell, he says. If each cell can be considered a miniature machine, then its machine language is how the cell’s components, mechanics and biological force know how to operate and interact. “Once we understand the machine, we can start targeting how to use or disrupt the machinery,” he says.
Lang, who came to the School of Engineering from MIT in fall 2010, works out of a new, custom-designed and environmentally controlled lab space in Olin Hall. Using a variety of microscopes with lasers and lenses arranged in mathematically exacting configurations, he manipulates and adjusts the shape, position and timing of laser beams to test and study cell molecular activity. The microscopes, custom modified by Lang, rest on tables that float on cushions of air, diminishing vibrations that can alter measurements.
“I have a variety of projects surrounding the study of biological motors,” says Lang, explaining how this work could open new vistas for treating disease. “If you approach cell division as machinery, you can explore ways to alter an action—for instance, preventing cancer cells from dividing.”
Lang studies malfunctioning groups of proteins called amyloid fibers that are linked to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. “We’re looking at the strength of these fibers, at what makes them so strong, and looking for ways to understand their underlying structure and weaken them,” he says.
Lang also uses instruments he built to create automated optical traps. They enable researchers to probe the signaling machinery of the immune system. The outcome could be molecular-level ways of altering or enhancing immune response.
Nano in Biology
Lang says that developing the tools for measurement at the single-molecule level and using mathematical approaches to model structures inside cells are key to developing unprecedented advances in health care.
“The ability to visualize and measure activity at a molecular level has the potential to affect how we treat disease,” he says. “Nanotechnology offers a framework from which to understand and move forward in new ways. Biology has its own nanotechnology and it’s going on right before our eyes. It’s fascinating and superior in many ways to anything humanity has created.”
His research in biomolecular systems is international in scope. Building on relationships he established while at MIT, Lang has a lab at National University of Singapore, which emphasizes global partnerships. Lang collaborates with scientists there on biosystem and micromechanic projects; the affiliation also provides research opportunities for his students.
Lang’s first year at Vanderbilt was intense as he installed his instruments and established his Nashville lab. Adding to that intensity was the arrival of his first child, Phoebe Garden Lang. “At first, it took two of us to change a diaper,” Lang jokes about himself and his wife, Hilary, a synthetic organic chemist turned patent attorney. Lang hopes to inspire Phoebe’s blooming curiosity in a scientific direction. “I haven’t gotten her into the lab yet, but I am looking forward to teaching her what I know about how things work,” he says. “I showed her how to jump-start my car the other day but I’m not sure she’ll remember.”
“If you approach cell division as machinery, you can explore ways to alter an action—for instance, preventing cancer cells from dividing.”
Lang is passionate about nurturing emerging scientists and supervises both undergraduate and graduate researchers in the Lang Lab. “If I just wanted to do research, I’d be in industry. I like mentoring undergraduates,” says Lang, who credits mentors at the University of Rochester and University of Chicago with inciting his scientific curiosity and providing the lab experiences that have inspired him.
He hopes to draw motivated undergrads into their own research as well as find funding to underwrite the grooming of a new generation of researchers. For one recent project, Lang and his students built a high-velocity pingpong ball launcher that can drive the lightweight ball through a soda can. “Part of the fun of working with undergraduates is teaching them how to approach a problem, to be an experimentalist,” Lang says. “Doing so means I get to have fun in the lab.”