Studying the fundamentals of life – What exactly is it? How did it come into being? – is a practice nearly as ancient as the existence of humankind. Last December, Vice President for Research and Professor Gabriel Lopez led a contingent of faculty and students from The University of New Mexico to a conference hosted by the Max Planck Society (MPS) in Bavaria, where they continued in the timeless pursuit of better understanding life itself.

According to their website, ‘the Max Planck Society is Germany's most successful research organization. Since its establishment in 1948, no fewer than 18 Nobel Laureates have emerged from the ranks of its scientists, putting it on a par with the best and most prestigious research institutions worldwide.’ UNM’s students were specifically recruited by the MPS to attend their conference as part of their new graduate program on Matter to Life. A primary focus of the program is "Can lifelike processes, functions and objects be quantitatively simulated, predicted and created in the laboratory?" and UNM students presented on research topics related to this question.

“All our students did a fantastic job,” Lopez said. “Our hosts were very gracious and further indicated that they would like to host UNM students for summer research experiences and support their attendance to future conferences. This is an excellent opportunity for our students and faculty to engage in cutting-edge, globally relevant, scientific collaborations.”

With areas of study ranging from physics to chemical engineering, genetics, biology and beyond, the cohort of undergraduate students all shared in a wonderful experience at the conference.

“I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to hear from and interact with leading scientists within the Max Planck Society,” said Esteban Abeyta, whose field of study is biochemistry with a background in genetics/genomics and immunology. “The experience was made even more unforgettable in the Castle Ringberg as well as in Germany during the holiday season.”

Abeyta presented on using random DNA to train powerful predictive models of gene expression in yeast, part of his summer research experience at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

“Essentially, the model trained using random DNA in yeast allows us to predict the expression level of any input DNA sequence,” Abeyta said.

Aidira Dora Yajaira Macias Gonzalez is pursuing a BS in chemical engineering with a concentration in bioengineering. Her area of research is on microfluidics, 3D cell culture and soft materials.

“It was an honor for me to be at the Max Planck Society: Matter to Life conference. I am grateful I had the opportunity to present my research in front of brilliant minds,” Gonzalez said. “It was more than I had imagined. Not only did I have the opportunity to present what excites me, but I also had the chance to network with people from all over the world and instantly connect with them through science.”

Studying biology with minors in chemistry and management, Darnell Cuylear presented on the design and characterization of pH responsive hydrogels for alternative gastrointestinal preparation. Cuylear and his group aim to improve the experience of patients preparing for a colonoscopy, thereby increase the patient compliance rate and decreasing the negative symptoms patients experience during preparation.

“My experience at the conference was amazing. The seminar put together by the Max Planck Society in Germany was a fantastic opportunity for my peers and me to engage with scientists from across the world, and to present our research to them,” Cuylear said. “It was very gratifying and it’s something that will I cherish for a long time.”

A student of biophysics, Gavin Gonzales feels further inspired to pursue a PhD after attending the Matter to Life conference.

“The Max Planck Society is conducting interesting bottom-up research, with a focus on understanding how to bring matter to life in a laboratory setting,” Gonzales said. “I synthesize and characterize colloidal zinc telluride/zinc selenide (ZnTe/ZnSe) quantum dots. I create nanometer sized particles to understand their various properties. These particles can be used as markers for imaging on small scales such as the size of cells.”

Pursuing her BA in Chemistry, Justine Melonie Keth conducts her research under Professor Diane Lidke in UNM’s Department of Pathology. She presented on using fluorescence microscopy and biophysical techniques to understand cell signaling in cancer.

“I greatly enjoyed the conference,” Keth said. “I was able to sit down and talk to the most renown scientists of their field during breakfast, lunch, and dinner and ask about their research. Everyone was very pleasant and helpful, and I’m excited by the education and research opportunities through the Matter to Life program. Overall, this was an amazing experience. I am thankful for the support of the Max Planck Society and UNM.”