Dave Thirumalai

The Marvin K. Collie-Welch Regents Chair in Chemistry
The University of Texas at Austin

A theoretical/computational chemist, Dave Thirumalai develops and applies concepts in chemistry and physics to biological problems and dynamical transitions in super cooled liquids and glasses. In early 2016, he moved from the University of Maryland to head the UT Austin chemistry department and has begun work to understand how cancer cells grow and invade neighboring tissues.

“A typical biopsy only samples a portion of a cancer tumor,” he noted.  “All too often, treatment is initially successful, but then the tumor starts growing again because of tumor heterogeneity.” Cancer heterogeneity shares aspects of a similar phenomenon in glasses which may provide quantitative insights into tumor growth.

Dr. Thirumalai also is continuing his work on molecular motors, the engines that power cargo transport in the cell. His team has developed theoretical and computational tools to describe the peculiarities of motors’ motility on actin and microtubule.

Protein folding is another area to which he contributed significantly using concepts rooted in polymer physics. He is using similar approaches to understand the more difficult problems of how genomes fold. “If you stretched out all the DNA in a human, it would reach to the moon and back multiple times,” he said. “We want to understand how DNA can package itself into only 10 microns – less than 1/7 of the width of a typical human hair – inside a single cell. If you try that with a long thread, it would quickly ball up and become knotted. We are just starting to crack some aspects of this remarkable feat by building advances in experiments.”