Engineering the Summer: PhD student Fabian Byléhn at AbbVie

Engineering the Summer is an annual series following molecular engineering students as they embark on summer internships and industry experiences.

As a first-generation college student, Fabian Byléhn learned early on how to navigate unexplored territory. Now, as a 4th-year PhD candidate at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), he’s continuing to delve into the unknown as he pushes the boundaries of material simulation in order to unlock a new era of drug development.

Born in Sweden to a family of athletes, science was rarely the main topic of discussion in the Byléhn household. Growing up, Fabian spent most of his weeknights on the track or in the gym, training under his father’s guidance in the hopes of becoming an Olympic runner (his great grandfather, Erik Byléhn, took silver in 1924 and ‘28).

It wasn’t until an injury forced Fabian to slow down that he discovered a keen interest in math, physics, and chemistry. Encouraged by his high school teachers, Fabian pursued his new interest with the same relentless determination. This time, however, he would have to chase it on his own.

“Being a first-generation college student, it was always hard for my parents to understand why I was spending so much time studying and stressing out over deadlines,” Byléhn said. “So I had to navigate this process alone, but in the end it was worth it because I became more independent and could pursue my own passions.”

This summer, Byléhn is applying that passion to an internship at AbbVie, a Chicago-based biotechnology company, where he’s simulating molecular interactions in order to speed up drug discovery.

What first sparked your interest in materials science?

My interest stems from my first undergraduate research project at University College London. We were trying to develop a material that would aid drug delivery, one that would slow the release of a medication and reduce potential side effects. I partnered with several PhD students who were working on materials simulations, and I was drawn to what they were doing, and how they could learn about materials on the atomic level without experimentation. That’s crucial because you encounter so many situations where, for whatever reason, you can’t experiment on a material directly.

Talk to me about your internship. How has the experience been?

The experience has been great! The work is similar to what I have done in my PhD. I use simulation and modeling to understand how certain drugs work and how they can be improved. Working in the industry, of course, is a bit different. It is fast-paced, and there are a lot of people involved in any single project. A drug will go through chemical synthesis, biochemical assays, biophysical assays, metabolic assays, scaling-up, and clinical trials, all of which have dedicated teams.

What are you working on at Pritzker Molecular Engineering?

At PME, I am using molecular simulation to understand allostery, a long-range communication mechanism used by proteins. Understanding allostery would have huge implications for drug design, opening the door for more targeted drugs with fewer side effects.

My approach is unique in that I want to apply that same property to other materials beyond protein. In fact, I have already designed some early test models, and I’m now using those to refine my understanding and technique.

How do you see your field growing in the coming years?

Computational drug design is growing rapidly, with more and more pharmaceutical companies taking advantage of it. To develop a drug, a company often has to consider thousands of iterations of any given compound, which becomes very expensive. Molecular simulations, meanwhile, can test those same compounds very cheaply in comparison.

The challenge with simulations is that you must ensure that your computational predictions are accurate. With that in mind, I would expect that as computers and algorithms become more powerful in the next 10 to 20 years, drugs will become cheaper and take less time to produce.

What role do you hope to play in that vision of the future?

I am one of the people developing these computational predictions, and I hope to play a major role. Many companies are trying to expand their computational science portfolio, and the people they hire will have a significant role in that process.

How has the environment at PME influenced your work?

Since there are so many different research areas under a single theme at PME, there is a lot of cross-talk between research fields that wouldn’t happen at traditional engineering schools. That sparks new ideas and more creativity to solve challenging global problems. In that sense, the environment has allowed me to be more creative and think of solutions through other perspectives. Nowhere else have I been in a situation where I can walk across the hallway and talk to someone in a different field to try to find a better solution.

PME is at the forefront of engineering and science related to materials systems, addressing challenges and technological issues that have a major impact on humanity and quality of life.

Click here for more information on the Molecular Engineering PhD and PME’s other world-class programs.