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Bringing Science to Life in a 3D Reality

Student in virtual labWhat used to be just numbers on paper have come to life for UNF senior Trevor Rogers. Using a special headset and software at the Thomas G. Carpenter Library’s Virtual Learning Center, Rogers can interact with these computational modeling concepts in a whole new way — as “touchable” molecules in three-dimension.

In this virtual world, molecules are life-size, allowing Rogers to reach out, grab them and manipulate them. “I did my whole degree without ever getting to do this, this is magical,” Rogers said. “To me, this is an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ moment, as corny as that sounds, but I can’t emphasize how important it is that I can build and rotate molecules in my hand and examine them … I can see myself becoming an advocate for this type of learning application.”

Rogers has been part of a team of student researchers working with Dr. Kenneth Laali, UNF Presidential Professor of Chemistry. Earlier this year, Laali was awarded a second U.S. patent for his research on the synthesis and bioactivity of a new class of compounds, known as curcuminoids, to fight cancer tumors, work that has spanned more than five years and produced over 120 new compounds. His lab has provided prominent research opportunities for UNF students over the years, several of whom became co-authors on peer-reviewed publications and went on to pursue doctoral degrees at R1 Institutions. To date, seven peer-reviewed publications and two patents have resulted from this line of work, and one made the cover of the journal ChemMedChem.

Stepping out of the lab and into the virtual lab, Laali investigated a virtual reality software called Nanome, that enables visualization and docking of his curcuminoids into specific proteins known to be important in various types of cancer. He sees it as a powerful learning tool for chemistry and biology students. “This software allows us to look in three-dimension into the actual interaction of a potential drug with a particular protein,” Laali said. Though the use of the software is not part of his extensive experimental work, it provides a complementary tool. Laali said that he and Rogers are currently importing some of his “optimized curcuminoid structures to perform docking into the pocket of proteins to compare his computational docking work with the data that Nanome can produce.”

“I examined Nanome myself and was waiting for a student to come along who would be interested in this type of research, so Trevor is the first,” Laali said. “Maybe once the word gets out, other faculty will become interested to try it out and develop ideas to utilize this software.”

Kelly Hovinga, Virtual Learning Librarian, joined the campus community this year and serves as a resource to faculty and students wanting to work in the VR Lab. She said that Laali is the only faculty member using Nanome at this time.

“Nanome is currently being used by a number of R1 institutions for teaching basic chemistry principles. Interacting with the molecules in a 3D space facilitates students’ understanding of spatial chemistry concepts,” Hovinga said. “What’s cool about the software is you can teach in a virtual classroom, with multiple students viewing the same molecule in VR. Thus, if you wanted to talk about a specific chemistry concept, you could do so while manipulating the molecule ‘on screen.’ We hope to have 16 licensed seats to match our 16 VR headsets.”

For Rogers, using Nanome has been a tremendous learning experience, one that he is eager to share with his lab partners. He was not surprised to learn that the software was used for some of the original COVID research. “The tutorial has you working with the COVID spike protein,” Rogers said.