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Three College of Engineering Students Receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

McCarty, Sheehan, and Sbalbi

McCarty, Sheehan, and Sbalbi

Three UMass College of Engineering students are receiving coveted Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The three college recipients are Tailynn Yevette McCarty of the Biomedical Engineering Department, Nicholas Anthony Sbalbi of the Chemical Engineering Department, and Mary Chase Sheehan of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department.

Each of these distinguished fellowships provides a stipend and educational allowance of $46,000 annually for three years.

According to the NSF website, the purpose of its Graduate Research Fellowship Program is to help ensure the quality, vitality, and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing full-time, research-based, master's and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or in STEM education.

For her NSF research project, McCarty will be working on a sophisticated new engineering approach to the widespread medical issue of diabetic foot ulcers caused by the mushrooming incidence of Type 2 Diabetes nationally.

McCarty says that “Treatments for diabetic foot ulcers remain unsophisticated, consisting of multiple rounds of wound debridement, traditional bandaging, and offloading, which do not have a high success rate, and 20 percent result in limb amputation.”

To attack this burgeoning problem, McCarty proposes a novel localized treatment for diabetic foot ulcers by using extracellular vesicles (or lipid, bilayer-delimited particles) to regenerate healthy cellular tissue.

According to McCarty, “This proposal presents an engineering approach to a needed medical problem by generating a wholly novel therapeutic method using extracellular vesicles from reprogrammed fibroblasts,” which are the most common cells in human connective tissues.

For his NSF research, Sbalbi will be trying to expand the applicability of anisotropic colloids, which are particles characterized by a lack of symmetry in physical and/or chemical properties and thus show great promise as advanced materials, including solid surfactants, micromotors, and drug-delivery vehicles.

Sbalbi says that these vital applications are enabled by selectively imparting desired structural and chemical behavior onto both the surface and interior of particles.

“Broadening the applicability of these systems requires new, highly tunable, fabrication techniques to be developed,” Sbalbi explains.

While the current state of the art involves designing and optimizing novel synthesis routes from the ground up, which is extremely time-consuming and resource-intensive, Sbalbi believes that there are greater opportunities afforded by augmenting “established fabrication routes.”

According to Sbalbi, he plans to introduce a versatile and groundbreaking post-synthetic step in established fabrication routes that will enable a wide range of new, diverse morphologies to be generated from particle systems that have already been studied.

The objective of Sheehan’s NSF research proposal is to advance the concept of a pioneering tumor biopsy technology that she characterizes as “needle-based volumetric tumor profiling” by building mathematical models and the accompanying methodology for a more thorough, revealing, and accurate form of biopsy than is currently available.

Sheehan observes that the clinical practice of biopsy typically samples less than 1 percent of the tumor volume, which is inadequate to fully characterize the diversity of the tumor and negatively impacts the ability to plan appropriate treatment regimen.

To address this vital diagnostic issue, Sheehan plans to utilize a process called “Electroporation,” which is a technique used in the lab and clinic primarily for intracellular gene and drug delivery by application of ultrashort electric pulses using needle electrodes that transiently alter the barrier function of the cell membrane.

Cells undergoing Electroporation can leak intracellular proteins and nucleic acids, which Sheehan plans to collect and utilize via her pioneering mathematical models to create a much more accurate diagnosis of cancer tumors. (April 2022)