Asmamaw Wassie

Hertz Fellow: Asmamaw Wassie

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Area of Study

Biological Engineering

Fellowship Years

2014 - present

Asmamaw (Oz) is developing a novel molecule to make neurons in the brain glow green when that part of the brain is active. The molecule is injected as a gene using viruses so neuroscientists can observe the wiring of the brain and study dysfunction in action. According to Oz, a billion people suffer from some form of brain disorder. “That astonishing number incorporates a wide range of psychiatric disorders, medical disorders, PTSD, migraines, and obesity due to brain disorders that fail to communicate hunger satiation,” he says.

As an undergraduate at MIT in biological engineering, Oz worked on a team competing to develop a sensor that discerns specific odors. Funded by the DARPA RealNose Project, he helped make an electronic nose that could smell minute trace elements in the air. Military applications could be to mount the nose on a robot to detect tiny amounts of TNT, thus discerning minefields. Oz’s team joined odor receptive proteins with semi-conductor polymer nanowires, which led to filing a patent and delivering a presentation to DARPA. He predicts that within ten years a technology could be developed to smell cancer. He notes that even early stage cancer emits trace elements of certain molecules during altered metabolism.

“As a sixth-grader I took a chemistry class. What struck me was that you could stick battery wires in salt water and produce chlorine gas and sodium hydroxide, both of which have many uses. I was impressed by what I could make using simple materials. Now, as I try to create useful tools for neuroscience and biology, the Hertz Fellowship will give me the opportunity to freely pursue interdisciplinary collaborations so I can maximize the impact of my work.”