May 13, 2022
By Sherry Di Bari
As a young man, Willy Wriggers was fascinated by optical instruments.
Childhood gifts of a microscope and a telescope led to a love of science, especially astronomy and biology.
“I started studying the water in the dirt puddles outside and I was interested in bacteria and also looking at the stars,” he said. “I learned all the star constellations when I was 8 or 9 years old.”
In high school, Wriggers was active in his high school astronomy club, edited the club’s magazine, “Rosa Ursina”, and led tours and presentations about the cosmos.
“That experience became kind of a template for what I did later as a scientist and an educator,” he said.
Today, he focuses on life at the molecular level.
Wriggers, Frank Batten Chair of Aerospace Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering at Old Dominion University, is developing 3D computer modeling techniques to help scientists refine and reconstruct electron microscopy (EM) images.
Wriggers has been collaborating with Jing He, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at ODU, since 2015. His contribution is the application and understanding of deep learning in the computing environment.
The work “will help biological electron microscopists bridge a wide range of resolution levels, from the atomic level to the level of the living organism,” Wriggers said.
These images can help scientists explain biomolecular structures – complex assemblies made up of nucleic acids and proteins.
“Trying to understand these structures at the atomic level helps you understand the function of the biological machine – you understand how muscle works at the atomic level, you know how the metabolism of ATP (adenosine triphosphate, the “fuel” of all living things) drives complex cellular processes,” Wriggers explained in a recent interview. “How this actually happens with proteins is really fascinating.”
Wriggers and He specialize in modeling actin filaments – a gel-like fibrous material inside a cell or inside a muscle that is responsible for cell movement and muscle contraction.
“We’re one of five or six researchers in the world doing this kind of work,” he said.
Electron microscopy uses a beam of accelerated electrons to visualize molecular structures, which is not possible with a traditional optical microscope.
However, in order not to destroy the sample, the dose of electrons must be very low. This results in a low resolution image lacking full detail.
Prior to computer modelling, scientists would overlay a model of the complete structure onto the EM image by hand – a process that was time consuming and not repeatable.
Twenty-five years ago – when advances in computing were just beginning – Wriggers saw a potential solution. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone trying to use computers to do this automatically?'”
In response, Wriggers developed Situs, a software package that could anchor low-resolution EM images to computer-generated 3D models. The program has helped fill in missing artifacts caused by gaps in electron microscopes and refine what Wriggers calls “noisy” imaging.
“It put me on the map almost 25 years ago and basically guided my entire college career,” he said.
An introduction to computers
Wriggers grew up in Ingolstadt, Germany, home of car manufacturer Audi.
His father and grandfather both worked there, and Wriggers, like many teenagers, worked there in the summer.
This experience would lead to a lifelong love for cars and machines.
In college, Wriggers turned to physics and emerging computing technologies.
“People were just starting to use computers, and I realized that computers could play a big role in physics,” he said.
In 1992 he left Germany for a one-year exchange program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The reason I’m still here is that I didn’t trade,” he said with a laugh.
For Wriggers, it was an exciting time to be in Illinois. The physics department was only one floor away from the research and development department of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and they were developing Mosaic, the first commercially available Internet browser, and CAVE, a virtual reality environment.
“It really felt like the center of the universe to be at the Beckman Institute at that time,” he said.
Wriggers was one of the first researchers to implement virtual reality for 3D biological structures. It was innovative research for someone whose first experience with a computer was 21 years ago.
His thesis focused on the first simulation of newly discovered motor proteins. It was all application based – other people wrote the software – something Wriggers would eventually do too.
Wriggers developed Situs as a postdoctoral student at the University of California, San Diego, then as an assistant professor at the Scripps Research Institute on the same campus.
Find a home at ODU
At 32, he received a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The funding ensured the continuation of Wriggers’ work – from California to the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston, Weill Medical College at Cornell University and now at ODU. The grant has been renewed continuously since 2001.
“Wriggers’ work is a model of the quality of research that weaves together engineering and medicine here at Old Dominion University and the College of Engineering,” said Khan Iftekharuddin, acting dean of the Batten College of Engineering and Technology. “We appreciate his contributions as a researcher, teacher and friend.”
Wriggers left academia for a few years to help develop the Anton supercomputer at DE Shaw Research in New York. The privately funded team performed the first millisecond molecular dynamics simulation in 2010, which was a major breakthrough in biomolecular modeling.
Later, while looking for a university to renew his own NIH-funded project and lab, biomachina.org, life led him to ODU.
“When I got this offer, I was like, ‘Wow, they really believe in me,'” he said. “I am so very grateful to ODU for allowing me to pursue my independent research.”
Wriggers also welcomed the multidisciplinary opportunities at ODU – including the opportunity to work with ODU Motorsports.
“I used to ride a motorcycle. I used to fly glider planes,” he said. “I liked everything that moved.”
“Coming here and seeing that there was an active motorsport lab in this building,” he said, “I was really fascinated by that.”
As an advisor, Wriggers worked with the students to install sensors on the cars and measure vehicle parameters and dynamics. “We used this to improve lap times and better understand vehicle performance,” he said.
For Wriggers’ next project, the sky’s the limit.
“I hope to find time to return to an aerospace or optical astronomy project where I can apply our computational tools,” he said. “I think that would be really exciting.
“One of the great things about ODU is that there are no limits here in terms of what I can do.”
Far from campus
Wriggers lives in Chic’s Beach in Virginia Beach with his wife Hilary and two sons. The family plays various instruments. In his spare time, you might find Wriggers and his sons performing at open mics and on the local blues jam circuit at venues like Froggies or Jerry’s Indian River.
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