In an effort to support the doctoral training of graduate students in the Polymer Program of the Institute of Material Science, a proposal by Kelly Burke, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was recently awarded funding under the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) from the United States Department of Education.
Burke, a member of the Polymer Program, said that the proposal, which is focused on bio-derived and bio-inspired polymers, is meant to support graduate students as they complete their doctoral coursework and research. The funding permits the recruitment and support of a larger and more diverse cohort of STEM students, with particular focus in growing participation from females and other groups traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering.
“Really the goal is to provide financial support in the form of tuition, fees, and fellowship stipends for graduate students,” Burke said. “What that means is that we can grow our graduate program. We can support more students, train more students.”
She said that admitting and training a diverse group of students is important for better representation of our communities as well as for the generating of ideas from teams of people with different perspectives.
“We want to provide more opportunity for students to earn graduate degrees. This award allows us to provide high-level technical training to our candidates to position them to be leaders and innovators in the field,” Burke said. “Our program aims to equip students with the research and communication skills that they need so they can go out and make the mark that they want to have on the world. This award also allows us to recruit and support qualified people who may not have previously considered graduate school.”
The theme of the research is focused on creating materials that are “bio-derived” or “bio-inspired” meaning they originate from or are inspired by nature.
“Nature is the best at doing pretty much everything, including making polymers,” Burke said.
The Polymer Program as well as this proposal is multi-disciplinary, combining professors and students from the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Physics, and Chemistry Departments. Burke said this proposal allows for great collaboration between members of the various departments.
The proposal supports 12 different projects that focus on mimicking natural materials to overcome some of the limitations of conventional plastics.
Burke explained that a wide range of materials can actually be considered polymers. The projects mainly deal with creating different materials that can interact with various type of surfaces.
“Our materials are polymers, which are very big molecules. When people think of polymers, they often think about plastics that they encounter daily. Polymers are also things like rubber bands and gels. They can be hard or soft, and they can act like liquids, solids, or in between. There really is a wide variety of materials that are polymers,” Burke said.
She herself will be working with a biopolymer, silk protein, in hopes of developing a material that can be used on the surface of the intestine to help with symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases. Burke explained that, in some cases, inflammation is caused when the mucus within the intestine erodes and bacteria enters a wound in the wall of the intestine.
Burke is interested in designing and chemically modifying silk proteins so that they can be injected into the intestine as a liquid and then form a gel layer to stick to the inside of the organ.
“You can think about that gel layer just as a physical barrier to help if the mucus is eroded, but it also has a way to deliver treatment locally. A lot of inflammatory bowel diseases have what we call systemic treatments. You have either a pill or injection that treats the symptoms of the disease but that can have some serious side effects,” Burke said.” So, what we’re trying to do is design polymers that can interact at the site of inflammation and that are a localized delivery depot for therapeutics.”
For Burke this is a part of a larger interest in looking at how materials can interact with cells.
“I’m really interested in influencing cells to function in different ways just using materials. For example, often scientists need to be able to transition adult stem cells into different types of cells, like bone cells, fat cells, or nerve cells. They do this to understand how cells function when they are healthy and diseased. The most common way to do this now would be to deliver chemicals to cause the cells to differentiate and behave in a specific way,” Burke said. “One challenge with transitioning a technology or treatment from the lab into a clinical setting is that there can be undesired consequences when reagents diffuse out and travel to different places in the body.”
Essentially this would be a project looking at the possibility of promoting healing in intestinal tissue by delivering a localized treatment for inflammation with a material rather than delivering a potent treatment systemically.
“My lab has been very interested in trying to use the properties of a material to affect cellular behavior,” Burke said. “If you can control how cells and tissues function using materials, you may be able to reduce the need to deliver very potent biological molecules. This would open up many new possibilities in regenerative medicine and engineering.”
While this is only one project of the many proposed under the grant, all the projects focus on utilizing polymers derived or inspired by natural materials. Some projects focus on material synthesis, while others focus on complex characterization techniques and building computer models to predict their behavior. Many of the projects seek to understand and control the interaction of materials with various surfaces for tangible applications.
Article by Sarah Al-Arshani
Photography by Thomas Hurlbut