About the research
Hadden-Perilla works at the technological interface of chemistry, physics, biology and computing, using supercomputing resources to perform molecular dynamics simulations at the atomic level.
Molecular dynamics simulations allow researchers to study the way molecules move in order to learn how they carry out their functions in nature. Computer simulations are the only method that can reveal the motion of molecular systems down to the atomic level and are sometimes referred to as the “computational microscope.”
The technique allows Hadden-Perilla to study biological processes. Her team’s research has focused on the structure of the hepatitis B virus and understanding other aspects of disease.
Shaw has been performing molecular dynamics simulations to further scientific understanding of selenium-containing proteins. Selenium is a trace element, essential to human health, that is folded into protein cells as they are formed.
In addition to that computational work, Shaw and Hadden-Perilla are investigating ways to improve access to the computational microscope by researchers who are blind. The Journal of Science Education for Students with Disabilities recently accepted an article they submitted for publication describing Shaw’s tactile protein visualization project.
The research experience has fueled Shaw’s passion for computational chemistry, she said. People sometimes ask her if she chose this area of study in order to avoid the challenges she might face in working with physical samples in a traditional, “wet,” chemistry lab.
“I’ve been asked if I feel relegated to computational work because I’m blind, but that’s not the case at all,” she said. “This is exactly what I want to do.”
Summer program for students with disabilities
Karl Booksh and Sharon Rozovsky, both professors of chemistry and biochemistry, have been leading UD’s summer research program for students with disabilities since 2013.
Students from colleges and universities across the country come to campus for the 10-week program in which they work with UD faculty researchers in their labs on a variety of investigative projects. The program, which is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation through its Research Experiences for Undergraduates initiative, now has former participants attending graduate programs nationwide.
“Even more importantly, our students are ambassadors and advocates for inclusion, and I am very proud of them,” Rozovsky said.
In Shaw’s case, because of her interest in computational chemistry, Rozovsky contacted Hadden-Perilla, who immediately agreed to work with her during the summer.
“Olivia Shaw and Dr. Hadden have been collaborating with my research group, and it has been a fantastic experience,” Rozovsky said. “Olivia is very bright, motivated, hard-working and pragmatic. She has a bright future in research.”
Rozovsky said she especially appreciates Shaw’s good-natured and straightforward way of explaining the challenges she faces and what tools she needs to succeed. With Hadden-Perilla, the two made a video of Shaw discussing some of these issues, which Rozovsky showed to a large group of educators at a conference.
“I told the audience that this is an example that the students know best what they need, and we should all listen to them advocating for themselves,” she said. “It was very well received.”
As for Shaw, she thinks that having a disability has — far from preventing her from doing research — actually helped her develop the skills that are so important to that type of work. Throughout her life, she said, she’s constantly faced situations that were new and different and required her to come up with creative solutions.
“I think that translates to research, where what you’re doing is trying to solve a problem,” she said. “It’s something I just enjoy doing.”
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Kathy F. Atkinson
Published April 3, 2020