Once you're comfortable, it's time to think about the next challenge.

© 2024 EPFL / Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

© 2024 EPFL / Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Nako Nakatsuka, an analytical chemist and tenure track assistant professor in EPFL's School of Engineering, shares her uncommon academic journey, peppered with achievements in both science and sport.

As Nako Nakatsuka’s plane took off from her hometown of Tokyo in 2008, the trajectory of the biosensing field shifted in parallel to the flight path headed for New York City. At the early age of 17, with both an academic and athletic scholarship in hand, the budding athlete-scientist was headed on a winding road that would take her from Fordham University, through UCLA and ETH Zürich, to a Tenure Track Assistant professorship at EPFL.

Nako at the Engadin Ski Marathon in 2023 © 2023 Nako Nakatsuk

Initially set on a chemical engineering program at Fordham, Nakatsuka's academic direction took an unexpected and fortuitous turn when the program was discontinued a year later. She pivoted towards chemistry, a decision that would eventually lead her to the forefront of research in biosensing technologies.

Despite this initial setback, her undergraduate years were marked by a series of remarkable achievements, including four publications—two as the main author—and a book chapter. Under the guidance of Professor Ipsita Banerjee, she learned to expertly navigate a chemistry lab and conduct cutting edge research at a time when most students are still struggling to balance class work with doing their own laundry.

“Ipsita Banerjee’s mentorship at Fordham University was a turning point for me. I’d spend my mornings training as part of the cross country and track & field team, my days going to classes, and in the evenings, I’d cross New York City from the Bronx to Queens to spend hours in the lab conducting research with her,” says Nakatsuka. “She was so dedicated and pushed me so hard. Under her guidance, I learned how to work beyond what I thought I was capable of, and she passed on to me her passion for achieving research outcomes that could have an impact on society.”

Often laboring in the lab past midnight and waking up to train in the morning, one wonders how much sleep Nako got during those first years. The hard work paid off. “When I was interviewing for PhD positions at various universities in the U.S., some professors were incredulous as to how an undergrad from an unknown university could already have published so many papers,” Nako recounts.

In the end, not only did they learn to believe the young scientist, but she was entrusted with developing an entirely novel way to analyze serotonin and dopamine levels. Her two supervisors—the UCLA scientific super couple comprised of nanoscientist Paul S. Weiss and biochemist/neuroscientist Anne M. Andrews—had found in Nako the right person to combine their two fields of study into a powerful new way to monitor and understand neurochemistry.

By 2017, the 27-year-old Nako had already significantly contributed to the field of biosensing with her PhD thesis and even found the time to illustrate a children’s book aimed at introducing the basics of chemistry to kids. Her achievements drew the attention of ETH Zurich, and she made her move as a post-doctoral researcher to Switzerland in 2018.

While in Zurich, the invention of a nanoscale serotonin biosensor, the smallest biosensor to date for neurochemical detection, garnered her a spot on MIT’s prestigious “35 Innovators Under 35” at the age of 31. Her mastery of chemical intricacies, honed during her undergraduate years, combined with her realization at UCLA of the significant impact her sensors could have on neuroscience, and the refinement of her engineering skills at ETHZ, culminated in the development of a uniquely interdisciplinary approach. It’s this approach that she brings with her to EPFL.

I realize that as a chemist, I’m a bit of an outlier at the Neuro X Institute. But I’m sure that my biosensors and surface chemistry knowledge can be of great use to labs here and EPFL in general. I’m always looking for collaborations.

Having joined EPFL’s School of Engineering and the Neuro X Institute at the beginning of this year, Nakatsuka is also bringing an enthusiasm for cross-disciplinary collaborations and sharing science to a larger public. “I realize that as a chemist, I’m a bit of an outlier at the Neuro X Institute. But I’m sure that my biosensors and surface chemistry knowledge can be of great use to labs here and EPFL in general. I’m always looking for collaborations,” she says.

While her biosensors excel at tracking biomarkers for neurodegenerative diseases, they also hold potential for integration into neuroprosthetics. These functionalities could represent significant contributions from her Laboratory of Chemical Nanotechnolgy (CHEMINA) to the emerging translational neuroscience initiatives at Neuro X.

She’d also like to pick back up her outreach initiatives that she helped launch in the US. At UCLA, she mentored and taught students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to allow them to catch up to the more privileged students. Out of a small class of twenty students, five went on to pursue PhD programs at top institutions such as MIT and Stanford. “It was mind-blowing and also so rewarding to empower students who come from less strong academic backgrounds and give them the tools to be the top students at UCLA,” she recalls.

It’s good to appreciate the wins, but I’m also already onto the next grant proposal.

Once one gets to know Nako Nakatsuka, it’s not surprising that she continued to excel in sports during her fulgurant academic journey. “Sport challenges have always pushed me outside of my comfort zone,” she confides. In Los Angeles, she even joined the triathlon team without knowing how to swim. And with minimal cross-country skiing experience, her determination and natural abilities pushed her to complete the Engadin Ski Marathon last year. “Once you’re comfortable and mastered something, it’s time to start thinking about the next challenge that will push you beyond what you thought was possible,” Nakatsuka advises.

"Sport challenges have always pushed me outside of my comfort zone." © 2024 Nako Nakatsuka

Nako has also joined a running group on campus that sees scientists from several labs sweating it out on the rives of Lac Leman — certainly a good way to spark some interdisciplinary collaborations while evacuating the stress of academic life. When I congratulated her for the prestigious grant she was recently awarded by the Fondation Philanthropique Famille Sandoz, she said, “I guess it’s good to appreciate the wins, so thank you for that, but I’m also already onto the next grant proposal.”

Be sure not to miss Nako Nakatsuka’s inaugural lecture “Chemical Nanotechnologies for Human Health” on September 20th, 2024.

Nako Nakatsuka has pioneered a novel biosensor at the confluence of chemistry, engineering, and neuroscience that enables the monitoring of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine at previously unachievable nanoscale resolutions. This groundbreaking device utilizes uniquely designed single-stranded DNA sequences, or aptamers, that specifically target neurotransmitters.

These aptamers are confined within glass pipettes with nanoscale openings, allowing for precise detection of neurotransmitters in environments cluttered with interfering molecules. The small diameter of these openings effectively blocks larger, nonspecific biomolecules that could otherwise lead to false readings.

© 2024 EPFL

This innovative biosensor excels in its ability to be positioned directly near live neurons, with the potential to dynamically map neurotransmitter release as it happens. The fine scale of the pipette openings permits close proximity to synapses—the critical 20-nanometer gap between neurons where communication occurs—enabling an unprecedented view of the chemical dialogue integral to brain function.

This innovative strategy is a significant advance towards integrating neurochemical sensing with electrical measurements in human neuronal networks, potentially transforming our understanding of neurological diseases and brain function.

Author: Michael David Mitchell

Source: School of Engineering | STI

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