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Four NSF CAREER Awards Tie Record for Most in One Year at College of Engineering

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Four College of Engineering researchers have tied the college record for obtaining the most CAREER Awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in one year. Juan Jiménez, Stephen Nonnenmann, and Yubing Sun of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and Jun Yao of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department have all received grants from the prestigious NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program.

Acting College of Engineering Dean Christopher Hollot says that “These CAREER Awards clearly reflect well on the individual promise of Doctors Jiménez, Nonnenmann, Sun, and Yao. But they also reflect on our institution – on the wise investments made by our campus leadership and the hard and smart work that the college’s staff, search committees, and department heads made to attract and hire these outstanding young faculty members.”

Dean Hollot adds that “The range of CAREER research topics is also noteworthy, as the breadth of application in applied life sciences, nanotechnologies, and material sciences describe our expanding research portfolio and provide a window to the college’s future impact on society.”

As College of Engineering Associate Dean Russell Tessier says about the importance of the college’s proposal writing and reading services to help encourage and enhance grant submissions: “Over the past several years the college has instituted a training and mentorship program to assist junior faculty in grant writing. Faculty members receive guidance on proposal writing style and proposal review, and English writing assistance is available to candidates prior to proposal submission.”

Jiménez, Nonnenmann, Sun, and Yao are all 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. Their success speaks to the seamless integration of the College of Engineering in core missions of IALS, the campus, and beyond.

The CAREER project of Jiménez focuses on heart disease, the leading cause of death both in the USA and worldwide. Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease, is caused by the narrowing of one or more blood vessels in the heart due to the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques. Stents are commonly used as treatment to open blood vessels and restore blood flow. However, stents also carry medical complications, often related to delayed healing of the wound that is created by the stent upon introduction into the blood vessel. Endothelial cells, the cells lining the inside of blood vessels, play a key role in wound healing after a stent is introduced into the blood vessel and are affected by the local blood flow.

The goal of this CAREER project, says Jiménez, is “to investigate how the blood-flow environment around the individual stent struts affects endothelial cells to promote or prevent wound healing after stent implantation. This knowledge will promote the development of new treatment approaches that can accelerate wound healing after introduction of the stent into a blood vessel and decrease the medical complications associated with stents, leading to improved patient outcomes.” 

Nonnenmann’s CAREER research will focus on energy conversion and storage applications. As Nonnenmann explains, replacing scarce, expensive, noble-metal materials with abundant, cheap, efficient, complex, metal-oxide alternatives remains a primary challenge facing energy conversion. Missing oxygen atoms in the structure of these alternative oxide materials dictate their functional properties.

“This research uses novel microscopy methods and classic semiconductor analysis to visualize and quantify the location and amount of missing oxygen atoms across the critical interface under the operating conditions of actual energy conversion systems, in real time,” says Nonnenmann in his abstract. “Understanding the fundamental mechanisms of how missing atoms affect energy conversion at the interface is vital to rapidly advancing the development of devices such as fuel cells and electrolyzers.”

The NSF research project of Sun will study the mechanical and biochemical regulatory mechanisms of planar cell polarity (PCP) in vitro. As Sun explains, “Epithelial cells line the surfaces of many organs in the body, including the inner surface of hollow organs. As such, they often exhibit different functional properties and abilities through the thickness of the cell – something that is called PCP.”

The biofabrication of fully functional epithelial tissues has a broad application in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. But one of the main obstacles for achieving this goal is that epithelial cells grown in culture dishes typically do not demonstrate this polarity. In addition to researching PCP in vitro, “The project will systematically study the effects of geometrical confinement, matrix stiffness, mechanical strains, and chemical gradients on the initiation and maintenance of PCP, as well as identify the molecules that relay external mechanical signals to the cells for establishing PCP,” says Sun.

Yao remarks that his CAREER research “can lead to more precise biomedical devices for disease modeling, drug screening, and health diagnostics.” Yao’s abstract notes that the cell is a basic functional element in biology, and thus the cellular state is ultimately connected to every aspect in human health and bodily function. The mechanical and electrical behaviors of a cell are two basic 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, “which remains challenging because the two properties are usually measured by different sensors, while the degree of cell perturbation increases with the number of sensors used.”

By combining both measurements into one tiny sensor, Yao will provide an automatic solution to the simultaneous measurement of both properties and a means of acquiring information without introducing additional cell perturbation. (February 2019)