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Yao Receives NSF CAREER Grant to Develop Nanoscale Sensors to Measure Mechanical and Electrical Properties in Cells

Jun Yao

Jun Yao

An article from Inside UMass reports that Assistant Professor Jun Yao of the Electrical and Computer Department has received a five-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop nanoscale sensors which can measure both the mechanical and electrical properties of a cell at the same time. The grant is from NSF’s influential Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program.

Yao says his research can lead to more precise biomedical devices for disease modeling, drug screening, and health diagnostics. Because the cell is a basic functional element in biology, its mechanical and electrical behaviors are two key properties that indicate cell state and consequently are important for health monitoring, disease diagnosis, and tissue repair.

“A comprehensive assessment of cellular status requires the knowledge of both mechanical and electrical properties at the same time,” says Yao. He adds that such knowledge is challenging because the two properties are usually measured by different sensors, and the degree of disturbance in cell function increases with the number of sensors used.

Yao says combining both measurements into one tiny sensor provides a means of acquiring information with as little disturbance to cell functioning as possible.

As Yao says, his project aims to develop a type of nanoscale sensor, which can simultaneously measure both of these basic properties in a cell. This sensor technology can lead to more precise biomedical devices for a variety of uses. The concept of merging multiple sensing functions into one device will broaden the capabilities of general bio-interface engineering.

Eventually, the biomimetic sensor concept will lead to efficient, parallel, and multi-thread cellular monitoring and communication, explains Yao. The developed sensor technology will also provide a new tool for fundamental studies in cell mechanics and electrophysiology.

In addition to his faculty appointment in the College of Engineering, Yao is affiliated with the Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which combines deep and interdisciplinary expertise from 29 departments on the UMass Amherst campus to translate fundamental research into innovations that benefit humankind.

Yao heads an interdisciplinary research team within IALS’ Center for Personalized Health Monitoring. His group is interested in the synthesis and engineering of micro/nanoscale materials to enable novel devices, sensors, and their integration on rigid or soft frameworks for functional electronic or bioelectronic systems. (March 2019)