Month: July 2013

New Design of Nanodiscs and Nano-vesicles to Target Disease

By Jayna Miller

Lipids are the basic building blocks of biological membranes – and one of the best materials that nature provides us to entrap materials in nanoscale.


Dr. Mu-Ping Nieh, an associate professor at UConn, is leading a research group investigating the potential of lipid-based nanoparticles for drug delivery.  Under certain conditions, lipids can self-assemble into hollow, nanoscale spheres (vesicles), solid nanodiscs, or worm-like nano-ribbons. Depending on the properties of drug molecules, it is possible to insert drugs into these structures to help fight diseases, particularly cancer.

muping2One of the challenges involved in this research is how to determine whether the nanodiscs will target cancer-infected cells rather than healthy cells. Current chemotherapy techniques are often harsh, as many good cells are killed in the process of destroying cancer cells, causing patients to become weak from the treatment. The new treatment method proposed by Dr. Nieh’s research team will recognize and attack infected cells only, and thereby reduce patient discomfort.

muping3Dr. Nieh was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant in 2012 to design such nano-carriers. “Lipid-based nanodiscs and vesicles have the potential to serve as delivery carriers for therapeutics or diagnostic agents, so the stability of the structure is an important issue,” he said.

By examining the morphology of the nanoparticles, Dr. Nieh hopes to gain a better understanding of how the structure affects the targeting efficacy of the nanoparticles, leading to the design of a stable drug delivery system. His next challenge is to generalize the strategy to manufacture uniform nanoparticles from any lipid system in large quantities.

Dr. William Mustain Receives DOE Early Career Research Program Award

Republished with permission of Momentum,
a School of Engineering electronic publication.


By Jayna Miller (CLAS Dec. ’13)

mustain2012_profileDr. William Mustain, an assistant professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, is the recipient of a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Early Career Award, which is one of the most competitive in the United States, with only 65 awarded annually. The Early Career Research Program supports the research pursuits of exceptional young scientists, and creates career opportunities in various research fields.  Dr. Mustain’s five-year, $800,000 award was presented by the Office of Basic Energy Science.

The award will bring new equipment to the university and fund two graduate and two undergraduate students over the life of the grant.  Dr. Mustain’s proposal, “Room Temperature Electrochemical Upgrading of Methane to Oxygenate Fuels,” will focus on the development of a new type of electrochemical device that converts methane, from natural gas or biogas, to liquid fuels, like methanol, at room temperature.  This low temperature operation is a significant improvement over state-of-the-art methane-to-fuels processes that operate at very high temperatures, sometimes more than 900°C.  They also generally convert methane to syngas then employ a second process to convert the syngas to other chemicals and fuels. These extra steps add both cost and complexity to the process.

According to Dr. Mustain, the research team will focus on understanding the fundamental mechanisms for the transformation of methane to methanol at ultra-low temperatures, bypassing the syngas intermediate,  as well as determining the optimal design conditions to maximize methane conversion and methanol selectivity.


Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this process is that it is able to operate at or near room temperature (20-50°C), which has a number of advantages.  “There will be lower energy required for the process, and much lower cost because you do not need high quality heat and you have a wider range of materials that you can consider,” said Dr. Mustain.  He hopes to leverage all of the work that has been done on other electrochemical devices, like batteries and fuel cells, over the last 20 years to make rapid improvements on his prototype.

There are a variety of practical applications for this research.  For instance, methanol can be used as a direct energy carrier, and as a fuel source for small portable power applications or cars using a direct methanol fuel cell.  Methanol is also one of the top 25 industrial chemicals in the world, which means it has a range of uses.  In addition, it can be easily converted to formaldehyde, which is another top 25 industrial chemical.

Dr. Mustain’s previous research has involved the design of new catalyst materials for fuel cells, capacitors and lithium-ion batteries. He also has received the Illinois Institute of Technology Young Alumni Award. For more about his DOE-funded research, please visit

Science Radio Show Enlightens Listeners

Screen shot 2013-06-26 at 1.29.22 PMRepublished with permission of Momentum,
a School of Engineering electronic publication.



Photo of Jeff McCutcheon in radio studio

Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon, an assistant professor in the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Department, is intent on bringing science, engineering and technology to a broader audience where preconceptions can be discussed openly and overturned. To that end, in April he launched a weekly, two-hour talk radio program on UConn’s noncommercial college and community radio station, WHUS (91.7 FM;, called Science Friction.

He chose an edgy name to underline the show’s focus, which squarely targets scientific controversies. The program currently airs Mondays from 1-3 p.m. and reaches a listening audience well beyond the boundaries of the UConn campus.  According to Ryan Caron King, the station’s general manager, “The geographic broadcast area of WHUS’s 4,400 watt signal reaches slightly past Hartford, into western Rhode Island and into southern Massachusetts.”

In explaining his decision to launch the radio show, Dr. McCutcheon says, “A gap exists between scientists and the general public, and some view science and technology as the doom of humanity.  For example, there are debates about certain scientific issues such as climate change, nuclear power, alternative energy and water resources.  I believe that by giving scientists a platform to discuss these controversies, we can allay some of the public’s fears surrounding technology and science.”

“I look at this as a platform much like NPR’s ‘Science Friday.’  Each week I present a different topic or series of topics covering all subjects STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics]. I interview students, professors, entrepreneurs, people from the business arena – and not just strictly from UConn but from around the country. It’s important to get a broad spectrum of individuals to talk about the challenges they face and see in certain areas, and to allay fears that nonscientists may have about these technologies.”

His shows have generated eager calls from listeners on either side of the topical debate, and he notes that most callers have been complimentary and respectful.

To date, Dr. McCutcheon, who directs the Sustainable Water and Energy Learning Laboratory (SWELL), has interviewed engineering professors Daniel Burkey, Mei Wei, and Allison MacKay; plus student leaders Kelsey Boch (’13), Breanne Muratori (’13) and Andrew Silva (’14).  He has lined up six more programs for the summer, including interviews with professor Ranjan Srivastava, local businessman Kevin Bouley, Interim Engineering Dean Kazem Kazerounian and students participating in his NSF-sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), who will be carrying out novel research at UConn that has a business focus.

He notes that the radio show serves both the listening audience and the interviewees. “Very few people have the opportunity to be on the radio these days.  Professors and scientists relish this opportunity to talk about what they do, and students value the opportunity as a singular life event.”

Radio is a life-long interest of Dr. McCutcheon’s, whose father, a professional guitarist, has hosted a classical guitar radio show for 20 years on public radio in Dayton, Ohio.  “But what really got me into radio was listening to baseball games. I’m a big Cincinnati Reds fan and grew up listening to Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall.  When I was older, I began listening to news-talk radio. Radio is a great way to convey news, because radio broadcasts have to be clearer, in a way, than television broadcasts. Not to mention you can listen to radio anywhere, any time without it interfering with whatever you’re doing.”

Science Friction will play a central role in a proposal he is submitting to the National Science Foundation’s Early Career Development program. In his proposal, Dr. McCutcheon will articulate his intention to use this platform as a vehicle for broadening societal awareness of his research as well as that of other scientists, engineers and technologists.

Dr. McCutcheon is planning to make the show’s podcasts available via RSS feed to broaden listenership. He is eager to engage local teachers as well so that the program can reach students as they are beginning to examine scientific concepts and can learn from a spirited discussion involving alternate views.

CBE Welcomes 5 New Faculty

Following an especially ambitious recruiting year, the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) Department is excited to announce that 5 impressive new faculty members will join us for the fall 2013 and spring 2014 academic terms. The leap in faculty hiring is rooted in President Susan Herbst’s 2012 announcement that UConn will hire 290 new tenured/tenure track faculty members – in addition to filling vacancies – across the university by 2016.

All bring substantial academic credentials that will strengthen UConn Engineering programs. The new faculty members are profiled briefly below.

KellyBurke_profileKelly Burke joins the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Department, and has an appointment in the Polymer Program of the Institute of Materials Science. Dr. Burke, who joins UConn under the Eminent Faculty Initiative, earned her PhD at Case Western Reserve University in 2010 and brings expertise in protein modification strategies, tissue engineering, structure-property relationships of liquid crystals, and biocompatible multifunctional polymeric materials. Dr. Burke was a post-doctoral associate at Tufts University (2010-13), where she received an NIH National Research Service Award Fellowship.



yongku_profileYongku Cho joins the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Department. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2010. Dr. Cho’s research centers on protein engineering, optogenetics, neuroimaging and molecular neurobiology. He was most recently a post-doctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his work involved the molecular engineering of light-activated proteins.




SunLuyi2013_profileLuyi Sun joins the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Department, and has an appointment in the Polymer Program of the Institute of Materials Science. Dr. Sun, who joins UConn under the Eminent Faculty Initiative, received his PhD at the University of Alabama in 2004 and brings expertise in multi-functional nanostructured materials; polymeric materials and new polymer processing development; layered compounds; green science and engineering; hydrates and porous materials for energy storage. He was an assistant professor of chemistry at Texas State University (2009-13) and was a post-doctoral fellow at both Texas A&M and the University of Alabama.



VallaJulia2013_profileJulia Valla joins the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Department with expertise in the design and development of novel catalysts for industrial applications and design of new, emerging technologies and processes for the clean and sustainable energy production. She earned her PhD at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece in 2005. Dr. Valla was previously an assistant research professor in CMBE and the Center for Clean Energy Engineering and, earlier in her career, a Project Leader for Rive Technology Inc.



wagstrom_kristina_profileKristina Wagstrom joins the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Department as the Northeast Utilities Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering Education. She brings expertise in sourcing and modeling atmospheric particulates, air pollutants, health impacts of atmospheric particulate matter deposition, and air quality models. Dr. Wagstrom received her PhD from Carnegie Mellon University in 2009. She conducted post-doctoral research at the University of Minnesota (2009-12), and was an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. EPA (2012-13).

CBE Will Host the 2014 AIChE Northeast Regional Student Conference

After a round of competitive bidding, it was announced that the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Department at the University of Connecticut will host the 2014 AIChE Northeast Regional Student Conference.
To be held in the spring of 2014, the regional conference is a place where students from schools around the northeast will come together to share their undergraduate research experiences, attend workshops, and network with other students and local companies that will sponsor the event. Highlights of the conference will include the undergraduate paper and poster competitions, and the highly anticipated Chem-E-Car competition.
Regional winners from all of these events will earn the opportunity to compete on the national stage at the annual professional meeting, which will be held in Atlanta in Fall 2014. The student executive board will begin planning for this event now, and companies or alumni that may be interested in participating, please contact Professor Daniel Burkey.

Join CBE at Innovation Connection

The Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering department invites you to our Innovation Connection networking event on Thursday, July 25th at Nerac, Inc. The panel topic will center on Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), which is a program that brings undergraduate students to campus for summer research and development in energy, environmental, process, polymer and materials, and bioengineering and biotechnology areas. We will have a lively discussion with students who worked on projects and were enrolled in a business and entrepreneurship course on the mechanics of business.  They include:

KX Technologies: Justine Jesseinnovationconnection
Faculty Advisor: Professor McCutcheon

W.R. Grace: Isaac Batty
Faculty Advisor: Professor Bollas

Scitech Solar: Kyle Stachowiak
Faculty Advisor: Professor Willis

Proton OnSite: Joseph Amato
Faculty Advisor: Professor Maric

KX Technologies: Zacharia Rueger
Faculty Advisor: Professor McCutcheon

RPM Sustainable Technologies: William Hale
Faculty Advisor: Professor Parnas

VeruTech: Kyle Karinshak
Faculty Advisor: Professor Suib

Nanostannate Film: Urian Vue
Faculty Advisor: Professor Gao

BASF: Ryan Carpenter
Faculty Advisor: Professor Shor

The monthly Innovation Connection networking series began at UConn in late 2010 as a way to bring together business technology owners, large company representatives and the best and brightest of UConn students and faculty to share ideas and build connections.

Everyone is invited!

Date: Thursday, July 25th
Time: 3:30 – 4:30 – Panel Discussion
4:30 – 6:30 – Innovation Connection Networking Reception
Location: Nerac, Inc.; One Technology Drive; Tolland, CT  06084 (860-872-7000)

Please RSVP. We hope to see you there!

Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon Named a DuPont Young Professor

Momentum logo

Republished with permission of Momentum,
a School of Engineering electronic publication.



Assistant professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Jeffrey McCutcheon was selected a 2013 DuPont Young Professor.  He is one of just 14 young professors, representing seven countries, to receive one of the three-year awards this year.  The award will fund his ongoing research in the area of novel membranes for use in water filtration and energy storage.

The DuPont Young Professor Program is designed to help promising young and untenured research faculty, working in areas of interest to DuPont, to begin their careers.

Dr. McCutcheon, who has a dual appointment in the Center for Environmental Science & Engineering (CESE), joined UConn in 2008 and has established a respected program in novel filtration technologies and, in particular, forward osmosis (FO) and pressure retarded osmosis (PRO).

Both FO and PRO are osmotically-driven membrane separation processes based on the natural tendency of water to flow from a solution of low solute concentration to one of higher concentration.  In both processes, water moves across a selective, semi-permeable membrane from a relatively dilute feed solution – such as seawater, brackish water or wastewater – into a highly concentrated ‘draw’ solution. Clean water permeates through the membrane from the feed water to the draw solution, leaving behind salts, contaminants and other feed solutes as a concentrated brine stream. And unlike conventional reverse osmosis, Dr. McCutcheon notes, these processes require no addition of energy. In FO, the diluted draw solution is carried to a secondary separation system that removes the solute from the water and recycles it within the system; drinkable water is one product of the process. In the case of PRO, the chemical potential energy of a saline solution is converted directly into electricity.

Central to his work in advancing both techniques is novel membranes that employ electrospun nanofiber nonwovens.  For his DuPont-sponsored research, Dr. McCutcheon will seek to establish that DuPont’s Hybrid Membrane Technology can be used in thin film composite membranes for salinity-driven processes.

Dr. McCutcheon directs the Sustainable Water and Energy Learning Laboratory (SWELL) at UConn, which serves as an educational and research center for innovative technologies aimed at addressing the world’s water and energy problems. He also oversees an NSF-sponsored, entrepreneurial Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) site at UConn, which brings undergraduate students from across the nation to campus for summer research and development in energy, environmental, process, polymer and materials, and bioengineering and biotechnology  areas in collaboration with industry.  He also advises the UConn student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which is working to develop desalination and water treatment technologies for local use in developing countries.

Read more about Dr. McCutcheon’s research here and watch a YouTube video here.