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A College of Engineering Record of Five Assistant Professors Win NSF CAREER Awards

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In a new College of Engineering record for one year, five of our researchers have obtained career-boosting grants from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. The accomplishment includes another record of four CAREER recipients from the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department. The five high-achieving faculty members are Xian Du of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, as well as Lauren Andrews, Peter Beltramo, Jungwoo Lee, and Sarah Perry of the ChE Department. The five CAREER award grants range from approximately $550,000 to $657,000 apiece.

Du is the principal investigator on a $571,655 CAREER grant from the NSF. Du’s research, as he explains, “enriches the knowledge base for soft lithography modeling, real-time sensing, deep learning, and design and control of the roll-to-roll print process and contributes to advancements in intelligent manufacturing” for such products as flexible electronics and wearables.

According to Du, his CAREER research focuses on improvements in roll-to-roll soft lithography by establishing a learning-based modeling method that guides the design and control of continuous microcontact printing processes and investigates continuous pattern formation mechanisms.

Du says that “The goal of this research is to understand the fundamental mechanics of microcontact printing through deep learning and establishing a scientific basis for roll-to-roll soft lithography.”

Left to Right: Xian Du, Lauren Andrews, Peter Beltramo, Jungwoo Lee, Sarah Perry

Andrews, the Marvin and Eva Schlanger Faculty Fellow in the ChE department, will do pioneering research studying how communities of bacteria can be engineered to have coordinated behaviors that will have numerous applications in biomanufacturing, cell-based therapies, and medical diagnostics. Andrews’s $589,060 CAREER research will develop a new approach for effectively programming how cells in a bacterial community work together in a predictive and highly controllable way.

According to Andrews, “The goal of this research is to establish a generalizable platform for the automated design of bacterial consortia in which metabolism can be dynamically controlled, and coordinated responses to cues can be specified.”

Andrews adds that “This toolset will enable researchers to utilize off-the-shelf parts for a priori design of temporal transcription control in microbial consortia. Natural populations of bacteria carry out exquisitely complex tasks by collaborating and communicating biochemically. We will utilize these same principles to engineer communities of cells to act more efficiently and robustly than single cells, which may ultimately enable new abilities to leverage engineered microbiomes in biotechnology.”

Beltramo’s $592,332 CAREER grant will support his project, titled “Understanding the interplay between lipid composition and biomolecule transport in biological membranes,” which comprises a pathway of fundamental research that could enable the development of such breakthroughs as advanced drug delivery systems, biosensors, and other biomimetic materials.

As Beltramo says about the basis for his CAREER research, “The phospholipid membrane is the barrier that divides the interior and exterior of cells. It is laden with membrane-bound objects such as proteins and ion channels which are under constant motion and dictate the functioning of the cell. Unraveling the role of the phospholipid membrane and the significance of high concentrations of membrane proteins in biological signaling processes offers the potential for discovery of new phenomena relating to how cells communicate, transport material, and orchestrate a whole host of essential processes.”

Lee’s $549,710 CAREER research could lead to a greater understanding through which bone remodeling and blood forming processes are functionally coupled in trabecular bone cavities by creating tissue engineered hematopoietic trabecular bone marrow models.

“Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation [or bone marrow transplanting] is the most successful stem cell therapy,” says Lee, “but limited availability of hematopoietic stem cells has been a chronic limitation. Expansion of hematopoietic stem cells has long been pursued, but with limited success, because they tend to change characteristics and lose their ability to develop into any blood cell type, a process known as ‘differentiation.’”

Lee says that “The goal of this CAREER project is to develop biomaterial models that mimic the microenvironments of trabecular bone marrow for growth and maintenance of hematopoietic stem cells without allowing differentiation. Once developed, the biomaterial models will be integrated into a scalable trabecular bone marrow bioreactor to culture expand hematopoietic stem cells.”

Perry’s $657,920 CAREER research will study a groundbreaking new approach to protein stabilization based on nature-inspired strategies. Her NSF research has the ultimate goal of boosting the accessibility of vaccines and other therapeutics, especially in developing countries, and extending the reach of temperature-stable proteins to sensing and catalysis applications.

“This CAREER project,” says Perry, “will pioneer a new approach to protein stabilization, using a biomaterial platform to mimic the crowded, protein-rich, intracellular environment and enable the intelligent design of stabilizing formulations.”

To do so, Perry’s lab is using polymers that self-assemble into liquid-liquid, phase-separated, complex, coacervate droplets and can be used to encapsulate proteins. The concentration of polymer in these droplets is similar to the level of crowding in cells. Perry’s hypothesis is that patterns of charge, hydrophobicity, and hydrogen-bonding groups along these polymers can be used to tune the material properties, and thus the ability of these coacervates to stabilize proteins. (March 2020)