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  • Professor Ambika Bhagi-Damodaran

    Ambika Bhagi-Damodaran, Ph.D., joins chemistry faculty

Ambika Bhagi-Damodaran, Ph.D., is joining the Department of Chemistry as an assistant professor, starting in the fall of 2018. At Minnesota, Ambika’s research focus will be at the interface of chemical biology and inorganic chemistry. She is currently a Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Michelle Arkin at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

A native of India, Ambika was born and brought up in country’s most densely populated state, Uttar Pradesh. During high school, she was intrigued by color transformations in inorganic chemical reactions and decided to pursue a career in chemistry. Ambika received her bachelor’s in chemistry from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi. While at St. Stephen’s, Ambika became interested in chemical biology as she studied bioorganic, bioinorganic, and medicinal chemistry. 

In her last year of undergraduate education, Ambika represented India as a Young Researcher at the 59th Nobel Laureate meeting in Lindau, Germany. Her conversations with Nobel Laureates Roger Tsien and Martin Chalfie made Ambika realize that she wanted to use her knowledge of chemistry to solve problems in biology and medicine. After completing a Master of Science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, she came to the United States to pursue her graduate education in chemical biology.  

During her doctorate studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Ambika worked in the laboratory of Professor Yi Lu, focusing on metalloprotein engineering and spectroscopy. Under Professor Lu's supervision, she investigated structure-function relations in metalloenzymes, heme-copper oxidase and nitric oxide reductase. Ambika forged multi-institutional collaborations to answer longstanding mechanistic questions about these enzymes, including the basis for selection of metal ions as well as reasons for differences in their redox potentials. She also designed a model set of protein cofactors that could controllably tune redox potential of heme protei, which is now being used by researchers worldwide to investigate other metalloenzymes. Based on this work, Ambika received the Young Investigator Award from the American Chemical Society (ACS) Division of Inorganic Chemistry, and five other internal awards/fellowships from UIUC. 

One of the transformative moments in Ambika’s research trajectory occurred when she attended the medicinal chemistry poster session at the fall 2014 ACS National Meeting. She saw that medicinal chemists were targeting metalloenzymes toward discovering new drugs without taking advantages of the inherent metal sites that could be used as tools to better characterize the drug leads. To bridge this gap between medicinal and inorganic chemistry practices, Ambika joined the group of Professor Michelle Arkin, director of a small-molecule discovery center at the University of California, San Francisco, as a post-doctoral fellow. 

At UCSF, Ambika’s research focused on p97, an enzyme that is over-expressed in cancer cells and is a cancer drug target. Using spectroscopic and structural methods, she showed that conformational switching played key role in determining p97 protein interactions and inhibiting such conformational switches may be a potential route to design p97-specific cancer drugs. Ambika was also involved in the design, mechanistic and cellular characterization of small-molecule p97 inhibitors, which are not only conformational-specific, but are also cell function-specific and are currently being used to understand the role of conformational switch in p97 cellular biology.

At the University of Minnesota (UMN), Ambika hopes to utilize her diverse academic training in inorganic chemistry, chemical biology, and medicinal chemistry to investigate redox-active metalloenzymes as drug targets. Her research seeks to combine inorganic techniques of metalloenzyme characterization with cutting-edge chemical biology methods to identify, explore and target “druggable” redox-active metalloenzymes. Her research will develop new treatment options for latent tuberculosis by exploiting redox signal transduction pathways in the bacteria, and designing small molecule inhibitors of neuronal nitric oxide synthase to target neurodegenerative diseases. Ambika also wants to utilize her knowledge in metalloenzyme engineering to design new biocatalysts with high efficiency and broad substrate scope. 

In addition to her research goals, Ambika is devoted to teaching excellence in classroom settings. Her extensive experience as a teaching assistant honed her skills as an educator. Besides teaching, she also helped design a course aimed at introducing undergraduates to research avenues at UIUC, for which she received the "Excellence in Teaching" award from School of Chemical Sciences, UIUC. She has directly mentored six students—three undergraduates, two graduate students, and one visiting scholar—during her doctorate and post-doctoral studies and is excited to continue her teaching/mentoring roles at UMN. 

Ambika currently lives with her husband and nine-month old daughter in San Francisco. She enjoys discussing science/ politics with her husband, playing peek-a-boo with her daughter and video chatting with her family in India. Her interests include hiking, biking and exploring new cuisines. She is glad that Minneapolis/St. Paul is a great place to pursue these activities and is very excited about the move!