Unfolding the Mystery of Proteins

| May 31, 2023

Assistant professor Wade Zeno, an expert in proteins, wins the prestigious ESI MIRA award from the NIH

Professor Zeno works in his research lab (Photo Courtesy of Wade Zeno)

Professor Zeno works in his research lab (Photo Courtesy of Wade Zeno)

Wade Zeno, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has received the Early-Stage Investigator’s Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (ESI MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health.

The MIRA is a prestigious grant that supports an investigator’s lab to promote important scientific breakthroughs. The grant will fund Zeno’s lab for a total of $2 million throughout five years, as his team explores dynamic interactions between intrinsically disordered proteins and curved cellular membrane surfaces.

“I was really fortunate to get this award because I’m still pretty new to being a professor,” said Zeno, an expert in proteins who joined USC Viterbi in summer 2020. “This research is essential to understanding the mechanisms by which intrinsically disordered proteins function in cellular processes.”

Proteins are a key molecule that carry out all different kinds of functions in living systems. Historically, the field of protein biology believed that the function of proteins arose from their ability to fold into specific structures. However, it was recently discovered that many proteins don’t fold at all. These types of proteins, known as intrinsically disordered proteins, have good and bad implications. Many are innocuous and even essential, while others are heavily implicated in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimers, as well as certain types of cancer.

Zeno studies how these proteins interact specifically with curved surfaces. For example, a protein may disrupt neurotransmission and become a key sign of Parkinson’s disease. Understanding the fundamental mechanisms of these protein interactions could help one day find a cure.

“The mechanism of sensing curvature is important for many cellular processes because that’s how cells shuttle things across the plasma membrane and throughout the cytoplasm,” said Zeno. “If the proteins can’t do that, the cells can’t function and that underlies various diseases.”

One of Zeno’s first projects at USC was a collaboration with a local biotech company to understand how a potential therapeutic for Parkinson’s disease functions in cells.


Zeno didn’t always like the idea of working in biological research.

“In undergrad, I actually really hated biology,” Zeno said. “The memorization was really boring, and I wanted to solve actual problems.”

It wasn’t until his senior year as a chemical engineering major at the University of Nevada, Reno, that he fell in love with the intersection of physics, chemistry, math, and biology in his bioengineering class. For his senior design project, Zeno designed and modeled a brewery—integrating many aspects of his studies, such as modeling the kinetics of yeast fermentation.

“Once I saw [this intersection] it opened up a world of possibilities for me,” he said.


After working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin for four years, Zeno joined USC Viterbi in August 2020 as an assistant professor.

At USC, he was awarded the 2020 USC Provost’s Assistant Professor Fellowship, which gave him teaching relief for his first year.

“It allowed me to focus on my research. I was able to train my lab and collect preliminary data. I think this gave me an edge over other applicants and develop a strong research proposal that ultimately ended up getting funded,” Zeno said.

With the ESI MIRA grant, Zeno hopes to continue building a solid understanding of the function of intrinsically disordered proteins and how to engineer or control them.

“I want to help develop new biotechnologies that change the way we understand, diagnose, and treat disease,” he said.

Published on May 31st, 2023

Last updated on May 31st, 2023

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