Our Team

Principal Investigator

paul falkowski rutgers

Paul G. Falkowski is the Bennett L. Smith Professor of Business and Natural Resources at Rutgers University. His research interests include evolution, paleoecology, photosynthesis, biophysics, biogeochemical cycles, symbiosis and sustainable energy. His current work is focused on understanding the origins of life, how electron transfer reactions are mediated, and how organisms transformed the geochemistry of Earth.

Email: falko@marine.rutgers.edu


george bennett

George Bennett is the E. Dell Butcher Professor of Biochemistry & Cell Biology at Rice University. His current research interests include metabolic engineering of microbes for chemical production, genetic tools for synthetic biology, mechanisms of environmental responses of bacteria, and mechanisms of redox enzymes and structure-function analysis of protein electron carriers.

Email: gbennett@rice.edu

Yana Bromberg is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Genetics at Rutgers University. She is also a fellow at the Technical University of Munich Institute for Advanced Study. Research in the Bromberg lab is focused on developing bioinformatics tools for the molecular functional annotation of microbiomes, aiming to identify emergent functionality specific to individual environmental niches. The lab also builds tools for the analyses of human genomes for disease predisposition and the studies evolution of life’s electron transfer reactions.

Email: yana.bromberg@rutgers.edu

kat dawson

Kat Dawson is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University. She is a microbial biogeochemist. Her lab combines techniques from molecular biology, organic geochemistry, and stable isotope geochemistry (H, C, N, and S) to study microbial ecology, microbial transformation of organic molecules, and the molecular and isotopic imprints microbes leave behind in the geologic record.

Email: kat.dawson@rutgers.edu

mihaela glamoclija

Mihaela Glamoclija is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, Newark. Her research focuses on investigations of microbial systems living in extreme environments and characterization of their biosignatures that can resist the geologic time. She is curious about the ways in which life interacts with the environment and the mechanisms that it uses to thrive under the extremes. The analytical techniques applied in most of her research tie together the disciplines of mineralogy, biogeochemistry and molecular biology.

Email: m.glamoclija@rutgers.edu

juliane gross

Juliane Gross is an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University. Her academic interests are focused on understanding the formation history and geochemical evolution of differentiated celestial bodies and early Solar System processes. Currently she is investigating the mineralogy, petrology, and geochemistry of extraterrestrial planetary samples using a variety of experimental and microanalytical techniques.

Email: jgross@eps.rutgers.edu

robert hazen

Robert M. Hazen is a Senior Staff Scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Sciences’ Geophysical Laboratory and the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University.

Email: rhazen@ciw.edu

Janice McDonnell

Janice McDonnell is a STEM educator in the Department of 4-H Youth Development at Rutgers University. She has developed a wide range of tools and professional development programs for both educators and scientists that help promote STEM learning. In addition to her role as a Co-I of the ENGIMA team, she is the Director of the NSF funded Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence Networked Ocean World (COSEE NOW), and of the Polar Interdisciplinary Coordinated Education (ICE) program.

Email: mcdonnel@marine.rutgers.edu

montelione gaetano

Gaetano Montelione is the Professor and Constellation Endowed Chair in Biocomputing and Bioinformatics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The laboratory studies the structures, dynamics, and evolution of proteins, using hybrid methods that combine NMR, small angle X-ray scattering, X-ray crystallography, evolutionary co-variance data, and computational modeling. The current emphasis is on describing the “conformational landscapes” of proteins and protein complexes, including proteins involved in cancer biology and RNA-activated innate immune response. The lab also develops NMR-based methods for guiding protein structure prediction, and for enabling de novo protein design.

Email: monteg3@rpi.edu

vikas nanda

Vikas Nanda is a Resident Faculty Member at the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers University.  The laboratory applies theoretical tools for protein design along with experimental biophysics to address fundamental problems in biogeochemistry and protein evolution.  Research focus areas include the artificial photosynthesis, biomolecular homochirality, self-assembling molecular systems, and the structure of ancient proteins at the origins of life.

Email: nandavi@cabm.rutgers.edu

silberg jon

Jon Silberg is an Associate Professor in Biosciences at Rice University. His research draws on concepts, principles, and methods from science and engineering to elucidate and manipulate protein and cellular functions. His laboratory’s expertise in biochemistry and biomolecular engineering are employed to study living systems by taking advantage of classical methods for biochemical inquiry and developing and applying novel biotechnologies to support these investigations.

Email: joff@rice.edu

tezcan akif

F. Akif Tezcan is Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UC San Diego. His group’s research interests center on developing chemical tools for building functional protein assemblies and novel biological materials, and on understanding and expanding the roles of metals in biology.

Email: tezcan@ucsd.edu

nathan yee

Nathan Yee is a Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University. His research involves studying microbe-metal interactions. He is interested in understanding the role of microorganisms in the geochemical cycling of metals, and how metal geochemistry affects the ecology and evolution of microbial life.

Email: nyee@envsci.rutgers.edu


lucia banci

Lucia Banci is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Florence. Her research has provided original contributions and breakthroughs in Structural Biology and in biological NMR. She has addressed and unraveled many aspects of the biology of metal ions. The innovative in cell NMR approach developed by Lucia Banci and her group allows for the detection of human proteins in living human cells with atomic level resolution. She also exploited the extensive knowledge of structural biology by NMR to develop an absolutely innovative approach to vaccine design to design structure-based vaccines, based on the knowledge of the structure of the pathogen antigens and of its interaction pattern with antibodies.

Email: banci@cerm.unifi.it


Joy Buongiorno is a geomicrobiologist and Assistant Professor of Environmental Biology at Maryville College in east Tennessee. She applies cutting-edge data science approaches to untangle the complex dynamics that shape the co-evolution of the biosphere and geosphere. Combining her background in geoscience with a diverse toolkit of novel molecular methods, sequencing analysis, and bioinformatics tools, she delves into the interactions between microorganisms and their environment that allows life to thrive in some of the harshest places on the planet.

Email: joy.buongiorno@maryvillecollege.edu


Diego Ferreiro is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Chemistry at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina. His research focuses on the theoretical aspects of information flow in biomolecules. His lab develops and applies computational tools to analyze protein structures and dynamics in both physiological and evolutionary timescales, sieving the chances and necessities that shape de/encoding of biological information.

Email: diegulise@gmail.com

giovannelli donato

Donato Giovannelli is an Assistant Professor in Microbiology at the University of Naples Federico II, Italy and a Research Fellow at the National Research Council of Italy. His research interest includes the co-evolution of biosphere and geosphere and how life influences planetary-scale processes. Current research focuses on the microbial diversity and ecosystem functioning of extreme environments and their role in global biogeochemistry and reconstructing the emergence and evolution of metabolism. You can find out more visiting https://dgiovannelli.github.io or following Donato on Twitter.

Email: donato.giovannelli@gmail.com, donato.giovannelli@unina.it

kevin hand

Kevin Hand is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is the Project Scientist for the Europa Lander mission concept. His research focuses on the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the solar system.

Email: kevin.p.hand@jpl.nasa.gov

Michael Hecht is a Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University. Research in the Hecht lab focusses on the design and synthesis (in vivo) of vast combinatorial libraries of novel proteins that share no homology with sequences evolved by nature. Characterization of these de novo proteins reveals that many are well-folded and functionally active, and several of them can provide life-sustaining functions in vivo.  The implications of this work for astrobiology are (i) The molecular toolkit for life need not be limited to naturally evolved sequences. (ii) Artificial genomes and proteomes may soon be built from non-natural sequences. (iii) Genes and proteins sharing no ancestry with life on earth can nonetheless sustain life.

Email: hecht@princeton.edu

Eli Moore

Eli Moore is an Assistant Professor at Rowan University, and a biogeochemist who studies interactions between the biosphere and the geosphere from present day to deep time. He is interested in how these interactions impacted the origin of life, evolution of microbial metabolism, and microorganism response to current changing environmental conditions. His research uses state-of-the-art instrumentation to examine and discover new biological molecules linked to environmental change, and also employs global data resources in order to develop new ways to investigate the history of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe.

Email: mooreek@rowan.edu

oded livnah

Oded Livnah is a Professor and Structural Biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research encompasses the structural, biochemical, and biological properties of biologically related macromolecules primarily utilizing X-ray crystallographic methods. The research focuses on signaling processes of MAP kinases, bacterial infection, anti viral small molecule inhibitors, optimization of high affinity systems and protein design.

Email: oded.livnah@mail.huji.ac.il

shaunna morrison

Shaunna Morrison, Carnegie Research Scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Earth and Planets Laboratory, is Co-Director of the 4D Deep-Time Data Driven Discovery Initiative and is a CheMin Co-Investigator on the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Mission. Her research centers around mineralogy, crystallography, planetary science, and data science applications therein. Her recent work has focused on characterizing Earth’s mineralogy through deep time and its correlation with geologic processes, its co-evolution with the biosphere, and its relationship to other planetary bodies, particularly Mars.

Website: www.carnegiescience.edu/smmorrison
Email: smorrison@carnegiescience.edu

dror noy

Dror Noy is the head of the Biotechnology Department and the Bioenergetics and Protein Design laboratory at Migal – Galilee Research Institute in Israel. His research group implements computational protein design tools, recombinant DNA techniques, and advanced bioanalytical and spectroscopic methods to design, prepare, and characterize small water-soluble protein-pigment complexes analogous to the natural photosynthetic reaction centers and light harvesting complexes.

Email: drorn@migal.org.il


Yossi Paltiel is a full Professor in the Department of Applied Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Paltiel’s group’s goal is to establish a way to incorporate quantum mechanics into room temperature “classical” computation and reading schemes. This will provide quantum properties at nanometer scale distances, while maintaining the physical characteristics of currently available computer input-output devices. Paltiel has a startup company named Valentis Nanotech founded in 2013. The company utilizes nanocellulose and quantum dots unique properties to produce a biodegradable transparent sheet with additional controlled optical and gas/water barrier properties.

Email: Paltiel@mail.huji.ac.il
Web: https://www.qnelab.com/


Hagai Raanan is a computational structure biologist and microbiologist. His research focuses on the evolution of nanomachines that drive the global energy cycle via electron-transfer reactions and understanding the basic principle of the protein fold around metal and organic ligands within Oxidoreductases. Hagai received his Ph.D. from Dept. of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, on June 2015. His thesis focused on the cyanobacteria inhabit the biological soil crusts (BSC). The research examined the mechanisms whereby cyanobacteria of the desert BSC cope with extreme environmental conditions using innovative field and laboratory techniques. In his free time, he is a passionate maker and loves to see his idea come to life.

Email: hraanan@gmail.com

Post-doctoral Researchers


Ariel Aptekmann is a theoretical biologist who studies the evolution of interactions between proteins and ligands. He is interested in general principles that apply to early catalytic function in the origin of life, the evolution of metabolism, and genomic responses to living conditions. At Rutgers, his research focuses on developing bioinformatic tools to analyze sequence data and predict protein properties aiming to link functionality to environmental niches.  Overall he expects to contribute to the understanding of life as a whole, focusing on the evolution of genomes and proteins, aiming to find trends or principles that direct the processes that rule over these nanomachines that make life possible. His goal is to increase our capacity to understand, engineer or predict the behavior of molecular machinery. For this purpose he is developing improved, machine-learning-based algorithms to predict properties associated with molecular machinery.

Email: ariel.aptekmann@rutgers.edu

Julian Esselborn is interested in how metals in proteins can be used for structural purposes as well as electron conductivity. While he worked on natural and semi-artificial [FeFe]-hydrogenases during his PhD tenure at Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, under the guidance of Prof. Thomas Happe, he recently shifted to a more engineering centered approach. With electron flow through biological material as the central energetic process of life in mind, he is now attempting to build novel protein assemblies with metal mediated electron conductivity properties in the lab of Prof. Akif Tezcan at UC San Diego. To this end classic protein design techniques, computational protein design, anaerobic protein handling and protein crystallography are employed. If those don’t keep him busy, he tries to catch the occasional wave in San Diego and likes to explore the wonderful world we live in.

Email: jesselborn@ucsd.edu

Jihua Hao is a theoretical and experimental geochemist interested in early Earth and origin of life problems. He got his PhD in Geochemistry from John Hopkins University (2012-2016), working with Prof. Dimitri A. Sverjensky (JHU) and Dr. Robert M. Hazen (GL-CIW). His thesis was about geochemical signatures of weathering and surface water chemistry in the late Archean. After graduation, he joined the Laboratory of Geology of Lyon: Earth, Planets and Environments (LGLTPE)  in France to work with Prof. Isabelle Daniel on surface adsorption under ambient or elevated P-T conditions. He also conducted diamond-anvil cell experiments to explore properties of high-pressure ices under the mantle conditions of icy planets. At Rutgers, he will mainly work with Profs. Nathan Yee and Paul Falkowski on photochemistry in early Earth and Mars environments. He will also investigate the availability of nutrients and transition metals in the early oceans.

Email: haojihua@marine.rutgers.edu

Adrienne Hoarfrost

Adrienne Hoarfrost is a NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellow. Previous to joining the ENIGMA team, she completed her PhD in Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is interested in how microbial communities and their environment regulate and interact with one another to produce the biogeochemical conditions on Earth, under both ancient and modern Earth conditions. Adrienne is developing data-intensive approaches to model the complex interactions between the biosphere and geosphere. Her work will address key challenges limiting data-intensive discovery for the bio-geosphere – from data discovery, to building compute-efficient algorithms for handling massive sequencing datasets, to developing deep learning approaches for bioinformatics in order to link microbial and Earth systems. Adrienne is also the lead developer of the MetaSeek Sequencing Data Discovery project: www.metaseek.cloud.

Email: adrienne.hoarfrost@rutgers.edu


Derek Gagnon previously studied radical S-adenosyl-L-methionine enzymes, metal trafficking, and metal sequestration proteins under Prof. David Britt. From there he became interested in how metalloproteins evolved to bind metal ions selectively and fulfill a vast array of functions related to life. He is currently working with Prof. Akif Tezcan designing metal binding sites at the interface of proteins which have nascent catalytic activity both in vitro and in vivo. Outside of work he enjoys hiking, camping, and rock climbing.

Email: dgagnon@ucsd.edu

Bhanu Jagilinki previously worked extensively on artificial de novo [4Fe-4S] proteins, under the guidance of Dr. Dror Noy, Migal, Israel. There he acquired significant knowledge in characterizing metallo-proteins using various biophysical techniques. Currently he is excited in studying the minimal possible metallo-peptides of the pre-biotic world, that could have evolved into Nanomachines leading to ‘Origins of Life’. Apart from his research interests, he would love to do photography and explore new places.

Email: bhanu.jagilinki@rutgers.edu

Joshua Mancini became fascinated with de novo protein design during his PhD tenure under Prof. Leslie Dutton at the University of Pennsylvania. It was here that he was introduced to the ability of de novo proteins to interface with metals and organic cofactors in cells. Josh has decided to intertwine computational and combinatorial de novo protein design to elucidate design principles of early enzymes as well as build novel catalysts for useful chemistry. In his spare time he enjoys SCUBA diving, backpacking in the wilderness, and doing ceramics.

Email: joshua.mancini@rutgers.edu

Aaron Martinez is a Geobiologist interested in all things at the intersection of life and the environment. He spent his PhD at the University of California, Riverside looking at lipid biomarkers and stable isotopes across mass extinctions and climatic shifts. Newly into an EOAS Postdoc at Rutgers, he is interested in the biogeochemical role of microbes in coupling the carbon, iron, and sulfur cycles in the environment. In his free time, he likes to experiment in the kitchen by fermenting food and brewing some meads!

Email: aaron.martinez@rutgers.edu

Kenneth McGuinness is fresh off a post-doc in industry at Merck Inc., Co. where he designed thermostable enzymes using artificial intelligence models. He is excited to build machine learning models to help understand the complexity of nanomachines in microbial ancestors and the synergy between the geosphere and biosphere. In his free time, he enjoys listening and playing music and playing fetch with his beautiful Hungarian Puli named Marley.

Email: kenneth.mcguinness@rutgers.edu

Saroj Poudel is a microbiologist/computational biologist studying the evolution of proteins especially metal binding proteins that can act as a catalyst or an electron carrier. He got his PhD from Montana State University, Bozeman, MT working under Dr. Eric Boyd where he focused on energy conserving electron bifurcation mechanism which has been speculated to have evolved very early. For his PhD work, he focused on the taxonomic and ecological distribution of all known bifurcating enzymes along with their evolution. He joins the lab with an aim to incorporate his evolutionary skills to structural bioinformatics to identify and elucidate the evolutionary process of early evolving proteins/peptides. Beside his work, he loves being outside where you can find him backpacking, rock climbing and biking.

Email: saroj.poudel@marine.rutgers.edu

Jennifer Timm is a structure biologist/biophysicist fascinated by all things protein, always looking for the detailed mechanisms behind nature’s machines. Her scientific career led her to projects involved in drug discovery, drug resistance, histone deposition and metalloproteins. Hooked by the complex mechanisms seen in metalloproteins, she now tries to shed light on how at the very origin of life peptides might have started to hold metal clusters and do complex chemical reactions while being comparably simple themselves. In her free time she enjoys nature, being outside as much as possible.

Email:  jennifer.timm@marine.rutgers.edu

Graduate Students


Ian Campbell is a PhD student at Rice University, working in the Joff Silberg lab. Ian is a synthetic biologist whose research focuses on examining the deep evolutionary history of proteins that conduct electron transfer and designing synthetic protein electron carriers to test our theories about that history. By examining the lineage of these protein families and investigating how they perform diverse functions across the tree of life, Ian hopes to uncover parameters of electron transfer that can be leveraged into controlling electron flow in designed organisms.

Email: ian.j.campbell@rice.edu

Orion Farr is a Masters student studying geochemistry under Dr. Paul Falkowski. He is interested in the geochemical origins of life and is currently exploring the interactions between UV light, trace metals, organic molecules, and minerals in prebiotic soups.

Email:  oef7@rutgers.edu

Douglas Pike has been a research scientist for over 10 years with publications in fields ranging from genetics and molecular biology to biochemistry and computational biophysics. He is lead developer in the Nanda Lab of the protein design software library protCAD, which originated in the Degrado protein design lab.  He is currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Quantitative Biomedicine at Rutgers. His current interests are designing new backbone folds capable of robust electron transfer and catalytic activity as mimetics of core natural active sites in proteins and prebiotic model systems.  Douglas is also lead developer of an open source blockchain technology project originating in 2014 and in his spare time he plays the piano and writes music.

Email:  pike@cabm.rutgers.edu

Renna Yi is a graduate student in Physics & Astronomy, working with Paul Falkowski and Vikas Nanda. She is interested in mathematical modeling of catalysis and autocatalysis, in the lofty hopes that such models might shed light on physically feasible mechanisms with which such systems could have emerged from prebiotic chemistry.

Email: ry136@rutgers.edu


bea birrer

Beatrice Birrer · Program Coordinator.

Email: bea@marine.rutgers.edu

liti haramaty
Liti Haramaty . Laboratory / Technical Researcher

Email: haramaty@marine.rutgers.edu

Alesha Vega is a Community Engagement and Outreach Coordinator in the Department of 4-H Youth Development at Rutgers University. In addition to her role as a broader impact coordinator for the ENIGMA team, she has been involved with civic engagement, public policy, community organizing, education and advocacy for more than fifteen years. She has an undergraduate degree in Biology and a Master’s in Public Policy. She is an AmeriCorps alumni and an avid environmental and social justice activist.

Email: aleshav@marine.rutgers.edu

Undergraduate Students

Nikki Chan is an undergraduate studying Biochemistry.

Email: nwc18@scarletmail.rutgers.edu

Juliana DiGiacomo is an undergraduate studying a major in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and two minors in Astrobiology and Comparative and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies.


Nolan Fehon is an undergraduate majoring in marine science. He is most interested in how microbial metabolisms relate to environmental limitations and evolution. Nolan is currently working with Dr. Nanda and Dr. McGuinness to create a database of proteins to understand how changes in their structure are reflected in their redox potentials. He is also a student representative for the Rutgers Climate Task Force.

Email: nff10@scarletmail.rutgers.edu

Shaheer Rizwan is an undergraduate student studying Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, with a minor in Economics. He is a student in the Nanda lab with a growing interest in protein design and computational biology. He is currently working on a project seeking to better understand specific cofactor binding motifs with data science tools. Shaheer also enjoys portrait photography and hiking in his spare time.

Email: sr1285@scarletmail.rutgers.edu

Havishk Tripathi is an undergraduate studying Chemical Engineering, with a minor in Earth and Planetary Sciences. He is a student in the Falkowski lab, who is researching topics in geochemistry/geobiology, astrobiology, and biosignature detection. His current research includes developing a kinetic model to capture the surface chemistry of Enceladus, and understanding abiotic processes for signs of life on exoplanets.

Email: havishk.tripathi@rutgers.edu