Devleena Samanta Invents Ways to Detect Molecules in Living Cells

June 3, 2022 • by Sophia Kurz

Learn more about Devleena Samanta's decision to join UT Austin's Department of Chemistry in fall 2021 and what her research focuses on.

Portrait of a woman

Devleena Samanta joined the Department of Chemistry in fall 2021 as an assistant professor. She designs and synthesizes nanoscale materials to address challenges in biology and medicine, and she's passionate about teaching students from a variety of backgrounds. She received her Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University. We recently spoke with her to learn more.

What is your research about?

My current research is about developing nanoscale materials with unique properties that would allow us to see molecules inside cells, and also control the amount of these molecules inside cells so that we can detect and treat diseases like cancer early on.

What research accomplishment are you most proud of?

By looking at molecules in living cells, we can learn how they behave and how their misbehavior can lead to diseases. However, most methods for looking at molecules in cells require either that the cells be "fixed" or grinding a bunch of cells together. From this, we merely get a snapshot of the molecules as opposed to getting a live video. Therefore, the problem is similar to trying to learn how football is played by looking at pictures from different games rather than by watching a video of the game. Some of the most sensitive detection platforms, like PCR and antigen tests for COVID, rely on the use of nucleic acid and protein-based sensors. But we cannot use similar techniques to detect molecules in living cells, because the proteins and nucleic acids don't go into cells very well. To overcome these challenges, during my postdoc, we made a structure, called a protein spherical nucleic acid, that is able to go into living cells in high quantities and detect intracellular molecules. That was the first example of a DNA-protein conjugate that can do that.

Why did you decide to come to UT?

UT had everything that I wanted in a school. For starters, everything is bigger and better in Texas. UT is one of the best chemistry schools in the country. The resources and infrastructure for research are incredible. One of the things that I'm really passionate about is educating the next generation of scientists. I wanted to make sure that I'm at a school that strongly supports the development of young scientists at this stage. And at UT, we have these specific programs like the Freshman Research Initiative and undergraduate research fellowships. So that was one of the big draws for me – I felt that I could really make a big impact by being in a school that cares about the things that I care about. And finally, the school motto is, "What starts here changes the world." So, I felt that if I started my career at UT, I too, can change the world!

Where does your passion for teaching and, in particular, creating opportunities for students from all backgrounds come from?

When I was growing up in India, I saw that there were so many cases of child labor ­– children from poor families who can't go to school because they have to work to provide for their families. I always hoped that I could do something to help them. I soon realized that I needed to be in a position of power to make a real impact, and I hoped one day I could do that as a professor. As an undergraduate, I volunteered for a program called the National Service Scheme, where I tutored children from impoverished neighborhoods in English and math. In graduate school, I volunteered for a program called Splash, where middle and high school students from all over the Bay Area came to Stanford twice a year. I taught classes on nanoscience and cancer diagnosis. I also went to different schools in the area and did science demonstrations for them. Now, as a professor at UT, I hope I can make a bigger difference by providing students from diverse backgrounds access to research and education.

Do you remember what first drew you to chemistry?

I used to watch the cartoon Dexter's Laboratory. There was this boy genius, Dexter, who would mix chemicals and always invent new things. That created a really strong impression on me. When my parents weren't home, I would mix household stuff, like my mom's expensive perfumes with water and hope something miraculous would happen. And one day, it kind of did. I mixed turmeric and detergent together, and it turned bright red. I had no idea why that happened (until much later). I think this kind of experience made me realize that chemistry is literally all around us, and I really wanted to understand the world on a molecular level.