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Auburn Engineering faculty member receives NIH award to shed light on 'dark' protein families

By Virginia Speirs

Published: Nov 18, 2020 3:02:00 PM

Debswapna Bhattacharya Debswapna Bhattacharya

Debswapna Bhattacharya, assistant professor of computer science and software engineering and Ginn Faculty Achievement Fellow, has won the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Bhattacharya received the MIRA, which grants $1.86 million over five years, for his project which aims to develop novel computational and data-driven methods to structurally annotate the “dark” protein families – protein families that are undiscovered by modern structure determination techniques and are inaccessible to molecular modeling. The study aims to gather key information in the understanding of biological systems at the molecular level.

“Nearly a quarter of protein families are currently dark, where molecular conformation is completely unknown,” Bhattacharya said. “The key challenge is how to shed light on this unknown protein universe to gain a comprehensive understanding of biology and disease, thereby paving the way to structure-based drug design at a genomic scale.”

Bhattacharya’s laboratory focuses specifically on the computational modeling of protein structures. Computational protein modeling plays a crucial role due to its scalability and wide applicability, Bhattacharya explained.

“Latest developments on computational and data science based on artificial intelligence and machine learning are getting more and more matured,” Bhattacharya said. “We now can interrogate a biological system through the lens of computation. We can try to mine biological big data and develop a new generation of data-driven predictive models that can help us understand the unknown protein universe at the molecular level and their impact in human disease.”

The goal of the MIRA funding mechanism is to enhance the ability of investigators to take on ambitious scientific projects and approach problems more creatively, according to NIH.

This is the second early career award that Bhattacharya has received this year, the first being a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, which granted him over $550,000.

“Dr. Bhattacharya is an outstanding young researcher, and this award is evidence of that,” said Hari Narayanan, computer science and software engineering department chair. “This is a testament to the quality of his scholarly work, both past and proposed, and the hard work he has put into positioning himself for this grant. He has a bright academic career ahead of him at Auburn. We are very proud of his achievement.”

As the second Auburn Engineering faculty member this year to win this major NIH recognition, Bhattacharya said he is grateful to receive the award.

 “I am extremely humbled to receive an NIH MIRA as an early stage investigator,” Bhattacharya said. “I am grateful for the support from my amazing students, fantastic collaborators, great mentors and a loving family.”

Media Contact: Chris Anthony,, 334.844.3447

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