New Faculty Spotlight: Sara Molinari

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Sara Molinari joined the University of Maryland (UMD) this summer as Assistant Professor in the Fischell Department of Bioengineering (BIOE), beginning July 17, 2023. Molinari comes to UMD as one of only a few researchers in the entire country investigating the creation of living materials grown from engineered bacteria.

Molinari began her studies in her home country of Italy. A first-generation college graduate, she earned a B.S. in pharmaceutical biotechnologies at the University of Perugia and a M.S. in bioinformatics at the University of Milano-Bicocca. 

While applying to Ph.D. programs, Molinari submitted an application to Rice University in Texas for their unique Ph.D. program in synthetic biology, the only one in the United States. Upon receiving her acceptance letter, Molinari made the big decision to move her life from Italy to Texas. At Rice University, she earned her Ph.D. in system synthetic and physical biology and wrote her thesis on programming differentiation in bacteria. 

After graduation, Molinari joined the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California as a postdoctoral researcher under her advisor Caroline Ajo-Franklin. After only three months in California, her advisor became a full professor at Rice University, moving Molinari and their research back to the same building where she earned her Ph.D. 

As a researcher in Ajo-Franklin’s lab, Molinari pursued an emerging, brand new field of research: engineered living materials. She created the first de novo macroscopic living material that grows from engineered bacteria. This work presents the only example of macroscopic material that grows from engineered bacteria. Genetic modifications also regulate the material’s stiffness and elasticity.

“I was extremely attracted to the department because of the possibilities to collaborate with my new colleagues. I’ve found the BIOE community very welcoming and the facilities top notch.”

Sara Molinari

Molinari brings this unique research and her lab to UMD. She will work to develop living materials with tailored biological and mechanical properties that are able to interface with complex environments—such as the human body.

After many years in Texas and ready for a change in scenery, Molinari moves to Maryland with her husband and their two rescue dogs. She is excited by both the new surroundings and the new opportunities as a member of BIOE. 

“I was extremely attracted to the department because of the possibilities to collaborate with my new colleagues,” she explains. “I’ve found the BIOE community very welcoming and the facilities top notch.”

Education, specifically science, has been a passion of Molinari’s since childhood. In fact, she can remember the moment she knew she wanted to be a scientist. In elementary school, she read a book about 1986 Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini, whose story sparked in Molinari a life-long passion for science. Levi-Montalcini overcame countless obstacles as a Jewish woman living in fascist Italy in the mid-1900’s, and was forced to perform her research in secret for many years. In time, she went on to win the Nobel Prize as a neurobiologist. 

Deeply impacted by this story, Molinari resolved at a young age to become a scientist and went on to be the first in her family to earn a college degree. Now, she is determined to help a new generation of students fulfill their dreams of building careers in science. 

Published August 16, 2023