Michael W. Deem is an acclaimed scientist, researcher, and engineer born in New Jersey. The son of a chemical engineer and a chemist, Deem has always found science to be a passion and source of connection to his family. Deem began his scientific and research careers early, earning a first place finish at his school’s physics science league and a second place finish in the state’s chemistry league. His robust familial background and his developing passion for science through his school programs, set Deem on his successful journey towards a career in science, engineering, and academia.
In addition to studying the world through a microscope, Deem and his family enjoyed getting out into nature to discover more about science in its natural state. Each year, his family would go hiking along the Appalachian Trail in Vermont and New Hampshire.
After a move across the country, from New Jersey to California, Deem received his Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1991.
From there, Deem headed north to the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his Ph.D in Chemical Engineering in 1994. During his Ph.D study, Deem wrote his graduating thesis paper on statistical mechanics and disordered materials.
With his Ph.D in hand, Deem took another cross-country move to do his postdoctoral work at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From 1995-1996, Deem did his fellowship with the Harvard physics department.
With his extensive background in a range of scientific studies, Deem was hired onto the academic faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1996. Eventually, Deem became the Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering for the university. In his role, Deem found his deep passion and conviction of investing in his students and providing an academic environment that promoted growth and learning, both as scientists and developing members of society.
After a successful academic career in California, Deem made the move to Texas in 2002. At Rice University in Houston, Texas, Deem became a John W. Cox Professor of Biochemical and Genetic Engineering and a Professor of Physics & Astronomy. While at the school, Deem pioneered the university’s Graduate Programs in Physical Biology, System Biology, and Synthetic Biology.
Later, in 2014, Deem became the Chair of the Bioengineering department for Rice University. During his time as chair, Deem grew the scientific facility by over 50%, doubled the department’s research funding budget, and created a new graduate study program that spanned 9 departments and 2 universities, and had 40 faculty members involved in its management. Deem remained Chair of the Bioengineering department until 2020.
While investing his efforts into developing students at universities, Deem also contributed vastly to the scientific community and a range of organizations over the years.
From 2002-2003, Deem served as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Sengnet, where he helped develop financial modeling software. This software was later sold to Clarifi for $40 million.
Deem also served as a Board of Directors member for the Biomedical Engineering Society from 2005-2008. While on the board, Deem helped promote member employment, further educational curriculum, and develop strategies for growth of the society.
From 2008-2010, Deem served as an Scientific Advisory Board Member for Ion Torrent Systems. While on the board, Deem performed all the original feasibility calculations for the development of NextGen sequencing. NextGen was eventually sold to Thermo Fisher for $2.3 billion in 2014. Still today, Deem finds his involvement in this project to be one of the defining moments in his scientific career.
Finally, Deem became the Founder and CEO of Certus LLC in 2009, which he still holds today. Certus LLC is an Energy Services provider based in Houston, Texas.
Deem spent over a decade involved in research aiming to find ways mathematics, chemistry, and biology interact with one another in the formation of molecular structure. This project was referred to as FunBio. In its finality, this research proved that variations in environmental pressure can initiate the spontaneous formation of modular structure, with a proportionality constant that depends on the ruggedness of the fitness landscape.
In this research project, Deem studies the relationship between natural variations in biological patterns within the body and overall health. By mirroring the data-collection and high level computing used to assess weather patterns and variation from those patterns in predictive meteorology, Deem aims to develop methods to predict when the human body will deviate from its biological patterns in the near future.
This knowledge could help intensive care providers predict when care will be needed and provide personalized critical care.
Thermodynamics of Pathogen Evolution
By studying the Eigen model by Luca Peliti, Deem worked to further understand the link between temperature and pathogen evolution. By a thorough examination of the thermo-link between energy and replication rate, mutation rate and temperature, and population size and temperature, Deem was able to develop a method to identify a pathogen before it became dominant by immune pressure at the sequence level and molecular level. This particular research can help pathologists select an annual vaccine for a pathogen.
To further his research on pathogen evolution, Deem went on to help develop the generalized NK (GNK) model of protein evolution. The GNK model the Deem team developed is aimed to measure the formation of and interaction between secondary structures of a protein and for the presence of an active or binding site in the protein.
This research can be used to determine the expected effectiveness of B cell vaccines by determining the difference between the vaccine and infecting virus. Functionally, this model has been used when selecting vaccines for influenza H3N2, some autoimmune diseases, and some cancers.
Beyond the medical field, Deem has also made contributions to the manufacturing and work arena. Zeolites are minerals commonly used as adsorbents and catalysts in commercial settings. Deem’s group developed the DIFFAX and ZEFSA methods of solving zeolite crystal structures from powder diffusion data.
In addition, Deem’s group has compiled a database of over 4 million zeolite structures and their properties. This database can be used in further research and by commercial users.
When the research is done and the lab coat is hung back on its hook, Michael Deem goes home to his two beloved children. On weekends in his small hometown in Texas, both his children play on their local sports teams and spend their free time lost in a good book.
When he isn’t going over genetic code or mentoring students and colleagues, Deem often finds himself at one of the many racetracks in Houston, Dallas, or the only F1 track in the U.S. in Austin. His passion for driving has lent him the privilege of going out with and learning driving techniques with the Porsche Club of America.
To keep fit and take advantage of the beautiful nature Austin has to offer, Deem enjoys rock climbing at the nearby Enchanted Rock. With some commitment to the sport, he has developed to a 12a level in traditional climbing.
Throughout his life, Michael Deem has sought to maintain a deep passion for science, a connection to family, and an admiration for the world’s natural beauty. Overall, Deem aspires to be known for his contributions to the fields of science he has dedicated his life to and to leave a legacy of personal investment in each student, colleague, or fellow scientist he has the privilege of working with.