Josh McGee and Hansen Tjo, two undergraduates in the UMass Chemical Engineering Department, were awardees at the 2020 Future Leaders in Chemical Engineering Symposium, a national award conference for undergraduate researchers as hosted by North Carolina State University. McGee’s presentation dealt with “Microfluidic Synthesis and Purification of Protein Nanoparticles,” while Tjo’s presentation described his research on “Charge Density Roles in Polyelectrolyte-Micelle Self-Assembly.”
The future leaders’ awardees were selected based on their academic performance, significant research contributions, and demonstrated potential for a successful research career.
The awards website described the event as “A highly selective research symposium that’s organized by the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University. The one-day symposium is a platform for the finest and brightest undergraduate researchers in the U.S. to present their work and be recognized for their achievements and potential as future leaders in chemical and biomolecular engineering.”
In describing the background of his research during his presentation, McGee explained that nanoparticles have revolutionized the field of colloidal science and have generated breakthroughs in medicine, food science, and electronics. Many of these applications, especially in medicine, necessitate precise control over nanoparticle characteristics such as size, polydispersity, zeta potential, and chemical content. His research seeks to improve that control by enabling rapid, scalable, efficient, and reproducible synthesis and purification of protein nanoparticles.
McGee’s presentation described his creation of a simple microfluidic platform to synthesize clinically relevant protein nanoparticles, which, as he said, “have tremendous potential to aid in academic/medical research and industrial applications in drug delivery. Realized benefits include superior particle characteristic tunability, increased drug loading, decreased waste, increased throughput, and continuous particle purification.”
Additionally, as McGee explained, this platform could enable the synthesis of nanoparticles composed of a variety of other materials. “The improved overall synthesis and purification of protein nanoparticles will enable faster prototyping of drug-delivery particle systems that contain novel therapeutics,” he said. “This could result in more patients realizing the benefits of such strategies in clinical trials and beyond.”
As Tjo explained the context for his fundamental work in complex coacervation, “In solution, electrostatic complexation may drive oppositely charged macro-ions to undergo an associative phase separation process termed ‘coacervation.’ The broad applications of coacervates as microreactors and biodelivery vehicles have resulted in extensive analysis of the physics of polyelectrolyte-micelle systems.”
However, as Tjo noted, “Much of the work to date has focused primarily on characterizing the phase behavior of individual polyelectrolyte-micelle systems rather than establishing predictive design rules for a broader range of systems.”
To address this problem, Tjo’s presentation describes a two-pronged approach exploring how the charge densities of both the polyelectrolyte and micelle affect phase behavior, which can be empirically tested using turbidimetry, optical microscopy, and electrophoretic light scattering techniques.
Tjo concluded that “Our goal is to establish predictive design rules accounting for the effective charge density of each macro-ion to accelerate the design of new materials for coacervate-based applications.” (January 2021)