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Erika DeBenedictis - Protein Engineer

Updated: Dec 18, 2021

Meet Erika DeBenedictis

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Institute for Protein Design,

University of Washington

You can listen to Erika explain Life Systems Engineering on this TEDx MIT YouTube video.

Or watch Erika's TED talk about Strategies for Fuel-efficient Space Travel.

Your body is made of proteins. Proteins are like tiny, amazing machines that make your body work. You need them to see light. You need them to breathe. You need them run, think, eat, and sleep. We know that proteins are made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. But we don’t know exactly how they work.

A string of circles that represent amino acids
A protein is a string of amino acids
The periodic table with hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen outlined
Each is made of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen

Erika DeBenedictis is trying to understand proteins. She wants to know how we can create proteins that do new things. One of her projects is to make a protein you could spray in your nose to recover quickly from COVID-19.

Erika gets to work with “really cool tools,” like pipettes and flames. She even has a liquid-handling robot that does work for her! Using a baby monitor, she can watch her robot work while she is at home. And if problems arise, she alerts people in the robot lab to fix it.

"“It’s fun when you learn something nobody else knows."

That’s the part of Erika’s work you can see. But proteins are small. Most of the action going on is invisible. The work is often frustrating. When an experiment fails, you have no idea why because you can’t see what you’re doing directly. It takes a lot of persistence, patience, and loads of problem solving. “You can’t give up, because when something finally does work, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Math and science skills are not enough to do this kind of work. It takes people skills to work on a research team. You have to know how to resolve disagreements. You have to explain your work to other scientists. And you have to explain your work to nonscientists who will decide if your work is valuable and safe.

Here are two good ways to prepare for a career like Erika’s.

· Read a lot. Erika started reading science magazines in the fifth grade and she has never stopped.

· Get involved in your school’s science fair. Find one problem and play with it for a long time. It’s a good first step into science work.

Erika takes great delight in doing science. “It’s fun when you learn something that nobody else knows. I love the feeling of having a secret. Even better, I love the feeling of blabbing my secret to everyone so they can know it too!”

Photo Credits

Photos of Erika DeBenedictis: By permission of Erika DeBenedictis

Periodic Table: This Photo is licensed under CC BY-SA

Protein Molecule: This Photo is licensed under CC BY

Read these books to learn more . . .


by Liz Lee Heinecke

If you want to understand proteins, you will have to understand chemistry. This book has it all: explanations, history, and famous experiments.

This engaging guide offers a series of snapshots of 25 scientists famous for their work with chemistry, from ancient history through today. Each lab tells the story of a scientist along with some background about the importance of their work, and a description of where it is still being used or reflected in today’s world.

A step-by-step illustrated experiment paired with each story offers kids a hands-on opportunity for exploring concepts the scientists pursued, or are working on today. Experiments range from very simple projects using materials you probably already have on hand, to more complicated ones that may require a few inexpensive items.


by Larry Gonick and Craig Criddle

If you have ever suspected that "heavy water" is the title of a bootleg Pink Floyd album, believed that surface tension is an anxiety disorder, or imagined that a noble gas is the result of a heavy meal at Buckingham Palace, then you need The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry to set you on the road to chemical literacy. You don't need to be a scientist to grasp these and many other complex ideas, because The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry explains them all: the history and basics of chemistry, atomic theory, combustion, solubility, reaction stoichiometry, the mole, entropy, and much more—all explained in simple, clear, and yes, funny illustrations.


by Demi

This was one of Erika's favorite books when she was a kid. It explains how quickly things get big if you keep doubling.

Long ago in India, there lived a raja who believed that he was wise and fair. But every year he kept nearly all of the people's rice for himself. Then when famine came, the raja refused to share the rice, and the people went hungry. Then a village girl named Rani devises a clever plan. She does a good deed for the raja, and in return the raja lets her choose her reward. Rani asks for just one grain of rice, doubled every day for thirty days. Through the surprising power of doubling, one grain of rice grows into more than one billion grains of rice - and Rani teaches the raja a lesson about what it truly means to be wise and fair.Demi's exquisitely detailed art, inspired by traditional Indian miniature paintings, combine with her simple retelling to convey the heart and wisdom of this satisfying mathematical tale.


. . . And visit these websites!


The first minute of this Amoeba Sisters video about proteins is fun and easy to understand. Then it gets really technical. Feel free to quit whenever you've had enough!

Here are some more amazing animations -Animated wonders of proteins and other molecules, from TED talks.

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