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Biophysicist in Profile

Aaron Frank

Aaron Frank

May 2021 // 3027

Aaron Frank has been interested in science since his early days growing up in Grenada, an island nation in the Caribbean. He is now an Assistant Professor of Biophysics and Chemistry at the University of Michigan and finds himself eager to explore a variety of projects as he continues in his career as a biophysicist.

Aaron Frank, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, grew up in Grenada, a small island in the southern Caribbean with a population of about 100,000. His father Terrence Frank was a teacher and school principal, and his mother Alice Frank was self-employed.

His first memory of his interest in science was around age seven, flipping through the pages of a tattered biology text­book passed down to him from his uncle via his older siblings. In high school, he had a biology teacher who encouraged him to enter local and Caribbean-wide regional science competi­tions, elevating science to a prominent place in his life.

In 2001, he moved to the United States and pursued his undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. After taking an organic chemistry class, he was invited by Alexander Greer to do research in his group. During his undergraduate years, he carried out research in the groups of Greer, Charlene Forest, and Shaneen Singh. His experience working in these research labs inspired him to pursue a career in science.

In Frank’s junior year, he took advantage of an opportunity to do summer research at the University of Michigan with Ioan Andricioaei. It was then that he became interested in biophys­ics and decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Michigan in Andricioaei’s lab. “My PhD advisor, Ioan Andricioaei, intro­duced me to atomistic modeling and simulations. My spe­cific interest in RNA started after a stimulating conversation with Prof. Hashim Al-Hashimi,” he shares. During his graduate studies, Frank moved with Andricioaei to the University of California, Irvine in 2008, and completed his PhD in chemistry in 2011.

Frank then undertook postdoctoral work centered around developing fast empirical methods for computing chemical shifts from 3D structures of RNA. “The motivation for this work, which was carried out at a small biotech company, Nymirum Inc., and then later at the University of Michigan un­der the mentorship of Prof. Charles L. Brooks III, was the need to acquire structural descriptions of therapeutically relevant RNA,” he explains.

Following his postdoctoral fellowship, he took a position as an Assistant Professor of Biophysics and Chemistry at the Uni­versity of Michigan. Research projects in his lab fall under two categories, he says: “One, my group is developing integrative methods to model the 2D and 3D structures of RNA. Specif­ically, we develop novel predictive models that enable us to use experimental data to guide computational algorithms. In a nutshell, we develop and apply methods that allow us to compare experimental and simulated measurements. This comparison allows us to identify the conformational states an RNA is likely to sample in solution. And two, we merge atomistic modeling tools and machine learning to generate methodologies to aid in structure-based virtual screening of RNA. In the context of RNA drug discovery, our development of these methods is motivated by a need to predict the likely ligand binding sites in RNA, to predict the 3D structure and binding energies of RNA-ligand complexes, and to design from scratch RNA-targeting small molecules.”

His biggest challenge has been maintaining focus. “By that, I mean that I have a penchant for wanting to explore new and exciting areas of research, and as someone in the computa­tional space, the barriers to doing so are lower than those for an experimentalist. As such, I have found myself exploring working on mini-projects that, though interesting, do not align with the two areas my group focuses on,” he shares. “Of course, this penchant for exploration is not inherently a bad thing, but given the pressures on early-career researchers like myself, there is not a lot of incentive to freely explore project-space. I am not sure I have overcome this challenge completely, but what I have found helpful is actively talking about my research interests and plans with senior mentors both within and outside of the University of Michigan.”

When he is not working, Frank is spending time with his fam­ily. He also enjoys playing video games, though it is now hard to find the time to do so. He also has an interest in history, saying that he would want a career as a historian if he were not a biophysicist.

Frank has organized a Biophysical Society-sponsored virtual networking event taking place on May 21 called “Biophysics in the Age of Machine Learning,” bringing together a slate of speakers to discuss opportunities and challenges in leverag­ing machine learning to enhance the molecular modeling of biophysical systems. He shares, “Being able to organize bio­physics symposia and virtual networking events as a member of the Biophysical Society has been helpful, especially as it relates to making new connections and also getting a better sense of who’s in my field and what are they doing.”

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