Faculty Member

Dr. Paola Laurino

Unit members


Dr. Benjamin Clifton, Staff Scientist

Email: benjamin.clifton[at]

I was born in Sydney, Australia and completed an undergraduate degree in chemistry (PhB (Sci) Hons) and PhD degree in protein biochemistry (2013-2016) at the Australian National University in Canberra. Protein evolution has been a longstanding interest for me, in particular, understanding how complex and functionally diverse proteins evolve through a simple process of mutation and selection, and how we can use this knowledge practically for protein engineering purposes.

During my PhD research in Prof. Colin Jackson's group, I studied the evolution of new protein functions in the solute-binding protein superfamily using ancestral protein reconstruction, a technique that allows extinct proteins to be recreated so that their evolutionary history can be studied in the lab. I then worked in a research role at Affinity Bio (Melbourne, Australia, 2017-2019), where I contributed to the development of antibodies against challenging targets for use in cancer immunotherapy. I joined the Protein Engineering and Evolution Unit at OIST in January 2020 to study how cellular tRNA modifications affect the outcome of protein evolution by controlling the error rate of protein synthesis. I'm also interested in developing new methods for functional annotation of solute-binding proteins for use in biosensor applications.

Dr. Samuel Hauf, ​​Staff Scientist 

Email: samuel.hauf2[at]

After a degree in Biotechnology from TU Braunschweig (Germany) and industry experience in a diagnostics company, I did a PhD in Microbiology at the German public health institute (Robert Koch-Institute), researching stress response and antimicrobial resistance in Listeria monocytogenes. This was followed by a postdoc in EHEC detection and then 4 years in the Nucleic Acid Chemistry and Engineering Unit at OIST working on high-throughput methods as well as DNA/RNA biochemistry. My interests lie in high-throughput methods as well as the fundamentals of life, like nucleic acid chemistry, phase separation, and genetics.

Dr. Prashant Jain, Postdoctoral Scholar

Email: prashant.jain[at]

I am Prashant, born and brought up in the capital of India, Delhi. After completing my bachelor's in 2014 from my hometown, I moved to Pune for higher studies. I joined the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, under an integrated Ph.D. program. After completing my master's (2014-2016), I obtained my Ph.D. in organic chemistry under Dr. Raghavendra Kikkeri in 2021. I joined OIST as a postdoctoral fellow in May 2021 in Prof Laurino's unit. Here, I am looking forward to playing with RNAs to unravel fundamental questions surrounding the RNA universe.

Dr. Yusran Abdillah Muthahari, Postdoctoral Scholar

Email: yusran.muthahari[at]

Hi all! My name is Yusran; was born in Garut, Indonesia. I completed my undergraduate and master's degree in Chemistry at Institut Teknologi Bandung, Indonesia (2010-2015). I acquired my double Ph.D. degree from the University of Groningen (the Netherlands) and KU Leuven (Belgium) in 2021. I then continued the research of my thesis for one year at IMBB-FORTH, Greece in Prof. Gkouridis Lab before joining the Protein Engineering and Evolution Unit of Prof. Laurino at OIST in July 2022.

I have a massive interest in protein evolution, specifically in how protein could acquire/delete modular structural elements to evolve distinct functions. Such may lead us on understanding why nature performs addition/deletion besides mutation during evolution. For that, we need to uncover the relationship between the structure, dynamics, energetics, and functions of the protein. In my previous study, I tested such a concept using solute binding proteins (SBPs). With Prof. Laurino, I would like to explore if such is also applicable to enzymes! I will mainly work on modular enzymes and see how similar cores can adapt to various modular elements during evolution. Besides, I am also interested in how life could emerge, and adapt from so simple a beginning. Personally, I truly hope that understanding the origin of life would help me to deepen my understanding of the meaning of life.

Dr. Paul Matthay, Postdoctoral Scholar


I was born and raised in the beautiful city of Dresden, Germany, where I finished my studies in process engineering with the focus on bioprocesses. Afterwards, I was fortunate enough to follow a PhD program in metabolic and genetic engineering in the KU Leuven, Belgium. After obtaining my PhD in bioengineering in 2023 I moved to the wonderful island of Okinawa to pursuit a Postdoc with Paola Laurino.

In the centre of my research interest is the applicability of science and to make the jump from fundamental science to real life application. Within my PhD I worked extensively on producing fine chemicals using microbes and within the project in Okinawa we focus on the reverse: to degrade toxic material using microbes, namely PFAS. Together with Prof. Laurino, we are using genetic, metabolic and evolutionary approaches to construct our microbes. Next to my passion for science I am also a runner and enjoy board games and video games.

Dr. Karolina Honzejkova, Postdoctoral Scholar


I am from the Czech Republic, where I completed my undergraduate studies in biochemistry and my PhD in physical chemistry at Charles University (Prague). My PhD work focused on explaining the mechanism of regulation of signaling proteins using the integrative structural biology approach. I joined the Laurino group in May 2024 to broaden my knowledge and skills in new areas while working in a diverse and stimulating environment.


Dr. Elsie Dunkley, JSPS Postdoctral Fellow

Email: elsie.dunkley[at]

I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand, but moved further north to Wellington for my studies in my late-twenties. I graduated first in my class with a Masters in Drug Discovery from the Victoria University of Wellington (Te Herenga Waka) in 2019. This ignited my interest in molecular evolution, so I took on a PhD with Prof. Wayne Patrick  at VUW (completed 2023). My doctoral research focussed on complex relationship between sequence, activity, and organismal fitness. I investigated the central metabolic enzyme, triosephosphate isomerase. I researched the ways in which enzyme activity contributes to the overall fitness of the cell, and how these two features interplay to create protein evolutionary trajectries. 
I was awarded a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship and joined the Laurino lab at OIST in 2024, excited by the group’s work asking the big questions about protein evolution. I am pleased to be working on protein viscoadaptation, examining proteins in their true native contexts within the cell. I also look forward to working towards finding and engineering minimal protein folds,  which considers the evolutionary history of proteins towards novel ends. 

Dr. Gen-ichiro Uechi, Technician

Email: Gen-ichiro.Uechi[at]

I'm Uechi. I joined in Apr. 2019. I was born in Okinawa and got a Ph.D. at the University of the Ryukyus.  I want to spread the beauty of Okinawa and want to be a bridge with younger generation

Mr. Alessandro Bevilacqua, PhD Student

Email: alessandro.bevilacqua[at]

I was born in Milan (Italy) where I obtained a master's degree in Plant Biotechnology at University of Milan. During my master's thesis I worked on protein expression and purification; since that experience, I have been interested in proteins' world.
I started my PhD here at OIST in January 2020 and I am really enjoying my stay here in Okinawa, both for the amazing places around and for how OIST do science: by promoting inclusion, equity, know-how sharing between different fields. 
I feel I am in a community that is working together to promote a better future and, in my opinion, this is what science should be about. In fewer word: sow science to harvest future!

Mr. Yoshiki Ochiai, PhD Student

Email: yoshiki.ochiai[at]

I was born and grew up in Osaka, Japan. I studied in molecular biology, biochemistry, and biophysics at Soka University, Tokyo. I got my master degree in Saitama university, and, at the same time, I worked in RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Center (CSRS) and The University of Tokyo. I joined in Protein Engineering and Evolution Unit from May 2020. Here I have engaged in designing novel enzymes for solving biological problems.



Mr. Dan Kozome, PhD Student

Email: dan.kozome2[at]

I was born and raised in Tokyo and moved to Okinawa in 2013. I obtained a bachelor's and master's degree in Agriculture at the University of the Ryukyus, where I was engaged in thermostabilizing an enzyme and in creating chimera enzymes by protein engineering (2013-2019). After internship and Gap program research at this Unit, I finally joined the Protein Engineering and Evolution Unit as a PhD student to start research focusing on how proteins acquire the function.  I am so happy to come back here to work with wonderful members and in a fascinating environment.



Ms. Amy Gooch, PhD Student

Email: amy.gooch[at]

I graduated from Durham University (in the UK) with a Joint Honours degree in Biology and Chemistry. My background is in organic chemistry and biochemistry, and I have a keen interest in the sophisticated chemistry carried out by enzymes. During my masters, I used the nickel-responsive regulator (NikR) as a model protein to probe the mechanisms by which proteins are loaded with their cognate metal(s). I joined the Protein Engineering and Evolution Unit so that I may investigate fascinating new topics related to proteins. Whilst carrying out my rotation in this unit, I hope to develop new skills and techniques, and learn a lot from the other members!

Ms. Lilian Magnus, PhD Student

Email: lilian.magnus[at]

I was born in Düsseldorf, Germany but spent most of my childhood in Belgium, after which I completed my bachelors and Masters degree at Imperial College London. It was there that I studied cellular biology and developed a real passion for science. During my undergraduate studies I was also able to complete an internship in Mishima, Shizuoka which sparked my interest in potentially returning to Japan for my phd studies. 

Originally I had joined the Laurino Lab as my out of field rotation, but I quickly fell in love with my project. As someone who really loves exploring the newer areas of science, this lab allows me to use cutting edge techniques to pursue questions at the forefront of the field, while working on becoming a better scientist!

Ms. Erika Fukuhara, PhD Student

Email: erika.fukuhara[at]

I was born in Okinawa but grew up mostly outside of Japan - in Germany and in the United States. I graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor's in Biology. During my undergraduate studies, I developed a growing interest in proteins, particularly protein interactions and their associated mechanisms. 

Having roots in Okinawa, starting my PhD studies at OIST has not only allowed me to pursue a graduate education but also has provided me an opportunity to reconnect with my Okinawan family. I joined the Protein Engineering and Evolution Unit from May 2022 as a rotation student. I am looking forward to gaining new skills and exploring the world of proteins during my rotation.

Ms. Diana Nechepurenko, PhD student 

Email: d.nechepurenko[at]

I am from Ukraine and completed both my bachelor's and master's degrees at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. During my time there, I made the transition from wet lab work to bioinformatics. Additionally, I gained valuable experience in a biotech startup focused on drug discovery and development. Prior to joining OIST, I interned at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, where I honed my skills in in silico mutagenesis and docking techniques.
Upon my initial internship in Paola's lab, I focused on learning to conduct molecular dynamics simulations of c-src kinase. Now, as a PhD student, I aim to leverage my existing computational tools while acquiring new ones to study protein behavior within biological condensates. Particularly, I'm interested in exploring the influence of protein disorderliness on this phenomenon. I believe that unraveling the mysteries of chaotic protein behavior holds more promise than focusing solely on order, and I'm eager to pursue this research under the guidance of Prof. Laurino. 

Ms. Maria Grazia Mortaro, Research Intern

Email: maria.mortaro[at]

I was born in a small town near Perugia (Italy), where I graduated with my bachelor’s in Biotechnology. Following that, I moved to Verona to pursue my master’s degree in Biotechnology for Bioresources and Sustainable Development, which I completed in 2023. My master’s thesis focused on metabolic and genetic engineering to enhance the production of remarkable compounds in microalgae. During this period, I had the privilege of conducting my research project at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, where I deepened my skills in molecular biology. This allowed me to broaden my horizons and perspectives, making me realize how important it was to explore new opportunities and grow as a person and scientist. With this mindset, I decided to join the Protein Engineering and Evolution unit in 2024, driven by the fascinating and intricate world of proteins and my aspiration to become a versatile researcher across disciplines. 




Ms. Mai Yoshioka, Research Unit Administrator

Email: mai.yoshioka[at]

I just joined OIST and Laurino Unit as a Research Unit Administrator in November 2023. I am greateful to be a part of the team. Originally from Yokohama city, I lived in Canada and USA for half of my life. I moved to Okinawa in 2018. In my free time, I enjoy searching and encoutering marine creatures.