Margaret C. Etter Early Career Award: Brent L. Nannenga (2022)

Brent Nannenga is the recipient of the 2022 Margaret Etter Early Career Award, an award “To recognize outstanding achievement and exceptional potential in crystallographic research demonstrated by a scientist at an early stage of their independent career.”  Brent is an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy as well as an affiliate of the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University (ASU).  His research focuses on protein engineering and studying the structure-function relationships of these designed proteins.  His work also includes developing and improving new techniques for structural biology, specifically using cryo-electron microscopy and he has already made considerable impact on the field.

After earning his PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, Brent went to the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work with Professor Tamir Gonen.  Here he learned and excelled in a variety of techniques including cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), diffraction data analysis, protein purification and protein crystallography (both electron and x-ray) which are areas with which few engineers have direct experience.  In this laboratory, Brent was a key player in the development of a new technique for structural biology called micro-electron diffraction (microED)  This is a technique that allows high resolution structures to be produced from vanishingly small crystals that would not be useable by other methods.  This work – determining protein structures by electron diffraction of three-dimensional (3D) crystals – was thought to be futile but Brent and colleagues were undeterred.  Brent grew nanocrystals of lysozyme only a billionth the size of what is required for x-ray crystallography and demonstrated that he could record electron diffraction data.  He collected an entire data set from a single nano crystal and, with other team members, indexed, integrated and solved the structure.  This was unprecedented work; the very first time that a protein structure was determined by electron diffraction from 3D crystals.  Brent had helped pioneer a new field of research in cryoEM called MicroED.

At ASU Brent has developed a large, active, creative, independent, and original research program that is very well-funded, focused on the ultimate goal of building biomolecules to fabricate specific nanomaterials.  He has succeeded because of his creativity and energy, willingness to try out new ideas and because of his personal experimental skill and hard work.  He has been awarded the prestigious Burton Medal of the Microscopy Society of America (for young scientists), an Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Award, and an NSF CAREER award from the Division of materials Research- Biomaterials.