Nanotechnology at Northwestern

Meet Yuwei Gu, a postdoctoral fellow in the Mirkin Research Group

By Mark Heiden

January 18, 2022

Yuwei Gu

Yuwei Gu is a postdoctoral fellow in the Mirkin Research Group, which focuses on developing methods for controlling the architecture of molecules and materials on the 1 – 100 nm length scale, understanding their fundamental properties, and utilizing such structures to develop novel tools that can be applied in the areas of chemical and biological sensing, gene regulation, immunomodulation, lithography, catalysis, optics, and energy generation, storage, and conversion.

Gu is also a Weinberg Family Postdoctoral Fellow with the International Institute for Nanotechnology.

Where are you originally from?

I was born and raised in Ningbo, a historical city that lies on the coastline of China.

Where did you complete your undergraduate degree?

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Tsinghua University in Beijing.

When did you first become interested in chemistry?

Early in high school, I read some articles about the discovery and total synthesis of insulin. I was fascinated by the beauty of contemporary chemistry, which allows complex molecules to be constructed from scratch.

How do you explain what you study to non-scientists?

I study macromolecules—basically big molecules made of more than thousands of atoms linked by chemical bonds. From plastics and rubbers to DNAs and proteins, macromolecules are everywhere in our daily lives. I am interested in better understanding and using these big molecules to develop new materials.

Recently, your research has been focused on using DNA-DNA interactions for selective transport of macromolecular cargo. What inspired you to explore that, and what do you hope to achieve?

The inspiration really came from biological systems, where nature has leveraged sophisticated macromolecular interactions to achieve selective transport of biological cargo such as proteins.

We borrowed the idea from nature to develop a synthetic system, where various macromolecular cargoes of our interests can be selectively transported through a DNA-gated hydrogel device. Ultimately, we hope to use such a transport platform to address challenging problems in nanotechnology, chemistry, and biology. For example, we are currently pursuing a long-term insulin release system to help diabetes patients live a better life.

What has been a highlight of your time at Northwestern?

What makes Northwestern (and IIN) unique is the diversity of its people. Every time I have problems or come up with new research ideas, I can immediately find the right people to discuss them with at Northwestern. These valuable conversations have really been the highlight of my time here.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your work or your time at Northwestern?

Shortly after I started my postdoc at Northwestern, the pandemic hit the world. The lab shutdown and social distancing have slowed down my research and made collaboration more difficult. Recently, we have been facing another wave due to the surging Omicron variant. I hope we will soon see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Can you tell me about your experiences either being mentored or mentoring others?

I have had the privilege to mentor several graduate and undergraduate students during my PhD and postdoc periods. My mentoring philosophy is to help my mentees develop into well-rounded persons and scientists. Seeing them grow has been my favorite part of academic life. By taking perspective of my mentees and recognizing their unique potential, I have helped them to find paths that suit them. I am especially proud of the diverse career choices of my former and present mentees, including an academic researcher, industrial scientist, consultant, and scientific illustrator.

What are your hobbies outside of the lab?

I like running and cooking. I am an avid art fan (especially oil paintings) and have been to most major art museums in the United States. My favorite artists include Vermeer, Bierstadt, Renoir, Hassam, and Kandinsky.

I am also a fan of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright; living in Chicago is therefore a dream come true for me—if you have not been to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in the Chicago suburbs, I highly recommend it.