Research

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Kelly Burke

By Sydney Souder

BurkeCaptionDr. Kelly Burke is excited by the multidisciplinary challenges of developing bio-derived polymers and stimuli-responsive materials in her lab. An assistant professor in the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, her work encompasses elements of medicine, biology, chemistry, tissue engineering and materials science. As a key member of the Polymer Program in the Institute of Materials Science, she is well-poised to develop a program that answers her fundamental research questions.

In her words, Dr. Burke’s work is a marriage between her graduate and post-doctoral projects. During her graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, she studied polymer synthesis and characterization. She then delved into the world of silk materials as an NIH postdoctoral fellow at Tufts.

SilkCaption“Typically, we think of silk as a means of creating fabrics or sutures. However, it is possible to chemically modify the proteins in silk materials to alter their functionality.” To this end, she is using her breadth of experience to create stimuli-responsive biomaterials from silk.

Dr. Burke’s goal is to manipulate silk polymers so that human cells respond to her materials. Specifically, she aims for her materials to moderate inflammation and promote healing. This could be invaluable for people with chronic diseases that impede healing, such as diabetes. Most existing wound materials are passive and only protect the area from bacteria and dirt. Dr. Burke seeks to create an interactive material that controls cells and encourages healing. Natural silkworm material is not recognized by the body, so the challenge is to ensure they respond to the chronically-inflamed environments.

“In many ways, being on the faculty at UConn is like coming home,” Dr. Burke says. An alumna who earned her B.S. in chemical engineering in 2005, she knows the people and the campus, including her favorite dairy bar ice cream flavor (Coffee Expresso Crunch).

With tremendous support from Connecticut state initiatives like Next Generation Connecticut, Tech Park, and Bioscience Connecticut, Dr. Burke says with a smile, “It’s an exciting time to be at UConn.”

 

 

 

 

 

Grad Student Spotlight: Christine Endicott

By Sydney Souder

Graduate student Christine Endicott is a true UConn Husky. Although a Vermont native, she received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering at UConn in 2008. Now, she’s back and in the second year of her PhD studies. And more? She’s still a Gampel season ticket holder.

“I had such a positive experience here as an undergraduate. I love the campus, and the environment in the Chemical Engineering department.” She adds, “My advisor, Dr. Srivastava, has been a mentor to me since I started at UConn back in 2004, so it was an obvious choice to return and work with him to complete my PhD.

The research performed here at UConn is highly relevant to today’s engineering challenges. Christine is currently trying to develop new antibiotic treatment methods for infectious diseases. “I love that I’m working on the potential next generation of infection control. Antibiotic resistance is a real problem, and the idea that I could save lives is extremely rewarding.”

Christine describes the graduate student environment here as one of comradery and collaboration. She and other students often take breaks together, and use each other’s experiences to help each other view their work in different lights. Pursuing her PhD at UConn has also provided her opportunities to grow outside of the lab. Christine has taught physics at UConn’s summer BRIDGE program, and has gained experience in writing grants by preparing a proposal for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As a National Science Foundation GK12 Fellow, Christine also interacts with students at AI Prince Technical High School in nearby Hartford to stimulate their interest in STEM fields.

“UConn is a great place to pursue a PhD. It has the right combination of great science, professors who care about you as a scientist and as a person, and great college basketball.”

 

 

 

CBE Professor Awarded Prestigious NARSAD Grant

By Sydney Souder

cho_yongku_profileDr. Yongku Cho, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has received a prestigious and highly competitive NARSAD Young Investigator Grant. Funded through the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, NARSAD grants are dedicated to research in brain and behavior disorders. The Young Investigator Grant supports promising young scientists conducting neurobiological research.

Dr. Cho’s two-year grant offers critical backing to enable him to collect pilot data for his innovative ideas. His grant will support Dr. Cho’s research group to develop a novel approach for rapid and reversible knockout of target genes. His group will research which regulated protein levels affect brain circuits. They will specifically study the mechanism of GABAA receptor dysfunction. Deficits in GABAA receptor function have been linked to multiple neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as epilepsy and schizophrenia. With his new technique, he intends to study the role of GABAA receptor interacting proteins, which may lead to therapeutic targets for such diseases.

First exposed to engineered antibodies during his graduate research at Wisconsin, Dr. Cho is now interested in manipulating these proteins to include new functions. “The broader objective of the work is to engineer antibodies with useful functionalities that they normally would not have,” says Dr. Cho.

If successful, this project could have wide applications and might connect with UConn’s interests as well. Dr. Cho foresees a potential collaboration with the Jackson laboratory for Genomic Medicine. The new laboratory at UConn’s Farmington campus seeks genomic solutions to disease, making medicine more precise and predictable. They are one of world’s leading institutes for transgenic mouse research.

“With the methods from this research, we might be able to pinpoint gene functions within such model organisms,” says Cho. For more information on Dr. Cho and his research, please visit his website.

 

REU Summer A Success

By Sydney Souder

For the third consecutive summer, UConn’s Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) Department hosed an NSF sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer program.

“The unique aspect of our REU,” said Dr. Jeff McCutcheon, principal investigator for the NSF grant supporting the program, “is that we connected student participants with faculty mentors and company sponsors for a true entrepreneurial or business oriented research experience.”

Lasting ten weeks this past summer, participating students were advised by both faculty and industrial partners, providing them with a unique experience at the interface of academic research and commercialization.

Projects varied across the spectrum of chemical engineering and materials science. This summer produced the following projects: Ceramic Nanofilm Depostion for Vapor Detection Devices (Proton OnSite), Implantable, Wireless Biosensors for Diabetes Care (Biorais), Graphene Polymer Nanocomposites (Cabot Corporation), Water Based Anodes for Lithium Ion Batteries (BYK Additives & Instruments), High-Performance Nanostructured Organic/Inorganic Hybrids for Functional Applications (Nanocor), Development of Scalable Droplet Microfluidic Devices (BASF), Increasing Soil Water Retention with Bacteria (DuPont), Characterization of TiO2 Thin Films on 316L Stainless Steel Formed using a Sol-Gel Technique (VeruTEK Technologies), Plasmonic Nanodevices for Solar Energy Harvesting (Scitech Solar), and Sustainable Biofuels Production (RPM Sustainable Technologies).

Students spent their summer in a world-class academic research laboratory with state-of-the art instrumentation. They also toured local incubator spaces, and participated in an Innovation Accelerator event at a local private incubator.

Laboratory time was balanced with workshops to improve students’ writing and presenting skills. One unique aspect of the program was the short business seminar during which students experienced a flavor of the business side of innovation.

This preparation came in handy for the “Innovation Connection” networking event at summer’s end. Participants pitched their work to the region’s business community during their poster session, and networked with over one hundred people in the field.

The REU experience did much more than the name may imply. This summer’s group of students also held their own barbeques, organized outings to UConn’s Avery Point campus, Mystic, and even attended a New Britain Rock Cats baseball game. These recreational events enriched the already memorable program to an unforgettable summer experience.

Dr. Yu Lei Receives US Patent for Explosive Detecting Sensors

By Sydney Souder

Dr. Yu Lei, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Connecticut, received a US Patent for his explosive detection technology.

Working with Ying Wang, a former graduate student, Dr. Lei engineered a sensor that provides clear and near-instant results upon contact with explosive vapors. “We initially wanted to synthesize low-cost materials that change color almost immediately when in contact with explosives,” says Lei. The project proved successful and was recently awarded a patent entitled, “Explosives Detection Substrate and Methods of Using the Same.”

The detector senses a range of explosives, from TNT used in construction, to RDX used by the military. It reveals minute traces of explosives when exposed to UV light and viewed by the naked eye.

Lei is now expanding his detection technologies in other forms beyond vapor detection. His latest research seeks to develop a nanoporous florescent film and a fluorescent protein that can reveal explosives in aqueous solutions.

These projects acknowledge funding by the National Science Foundation, the University of Connecticut Prototype Fund, and the Department of Homeland Security. For more information on Dr. Lei and his research, please visit his website.

Students Design Artificial Kidney with 3-D Printing

UConnTodayBy Rob Chudzik.
Senior chemical engineering student Derek Chhiv, right, discusses with Professor Anson Ma his group's prototype for an artificial kidney. The prototype was generated through 3-D printing. (Al Ferreira for UConn)Republished with permission of UConn Today.

 

 

Three-dimensional printing has garnered coverage in the popular press for its application in the custom manufacturing of tools and mechanical parts. But six School of Engineering seniors have recently taken the application of the technology into the medical field, using 3-D printing to create body parts.

Under the direction of Anson Ma, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Institute of Materials Science, two three-person teams of chemical engineering students were tasked with creating an artificial kidney for their Senior Design Project using 3-D printing technology. 3-D printing is an additive manufacturing method capable of creating complex parts that are otherwise impossible or extremely difficult to produce.

The students participating were: Derek Chhiv, Meaghan Sullivan, Danny Ung, Benjamin Coscia, Guleid Awale, and Ali Rogers. They are one of the first classes of students to partner with a commercial 3-D printing company, ACT Group, to create a prototype.

The challenge the teams set out to tackle is rooted in a very real problem.

The United States Renal Data System reports that, as recently as 2009, End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) resulted in over 90,000 deaths. Options for treatment of renal disease are essentially limited to either an organ transplant or dialysis. However, there is a limited supply of transplantable kidneys, with demand far outstripping the supply; and dialysis is expensive and is only a temporary solution.

According to data from the National Kidney Foundation, there are currently nearly 100,000 people awaiting kidney transplants in the United States, yet only 14,000 kidney transplants took place in the country this year. An additional 2,500 new patients are added to the kidney waiting list each month. Faced with these challenges, the two UConn teams set out on a year-long effort to design and develop a prototype of a cost-effective, functional artificial kidney using chemical engineering principles and 3-D printing technology.

“The objective of the design project is to get these students to combine the latest technology and their chemical engineering knowledge, learned over their four years at UConn, to solve a technical problem where we can make a difference,” notes Ma. “Can they push the technology further?”

Guleid Awale, one of the seniors, said the two design teams each took a slightly different approach to the problem. “While the other team utilized techniques such as electrodialysis and forward osmosis in their prototype, our group opted for mainly hollow fiber membrane technology commonly found in traditional hemodialysis treatments.”

Benjamin Coscia ’14 (ENG) explains the hollow fiber membrane technology: “Because 3D printing resolutions are not currently low enough to print a structure which will actually filter blood, the file is of only the shell of the kidney. Hollow fiber membranes will be installed on the inside to do the filtration function. The kidney will then be sealed together using the threads and sealing o-rings. A fluid called dialysate will be circulated on the outside of the membranes, inside of the shell, which will cause flux of components from the blood. A waste stream maintains the person’s ability to urinate. The outside of the shell can be used as a substrate for growth of biological material for ease of integration into the body.”

After undertaking the research and development of the design, the teams designed the prototype using AutoCAD software. Then each team collaborated with UConn technology partner ACT Group of Cromwell, Conn. to select the appropriate polymers, as well as the right printer to use in printing the particular prototype design.

The two teams presented their projects on May 2 at the School of Engineering Senior Design Demonstration Day.

“The biggest challenge in approaching the project was applying the engineering knowledge we’ve gained during our undergraduate years to a more complex biological application,” Awale notes. “This forced us to come out of our comfort zone and rely on our problem-solving skills in order to come up with viable solutions.”

Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Kristina Wagstrom

By Sydney Souder

Wagstrom CaptionProf. Kristina Wagstrom, through work in her Computational Atmospheric Chemistry and Exposure Lab, strives to improve the science and functionality of computational approaches in air pollution. Her overarching objective is to develop improved regional and global air pollution models for use by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other state agencies.

Prof. Wagstrom’s current projects here in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at UConn include tracking the global transport of particulate matter, and high resolution modeling. One of her goals is to determine the impact of particulate matter generated in different regions and continents on air pollution throughout the globe. Her research group is improving air pollution exposure estimates by coupling local and regional scale models. The overall intention is to create an efficient means of assisting policymakers in their decisions.MapCaptionWagstrom

“I want to be doing something that makes a difference in both the short and long term,” she says, “I enjoy working on projects where I can see the impact in five, six, seven years.”

Prof. Wagstrom’s outlook is strongly influenced by the Science and Technology Policy Fellowship she was engaged in directly before coming to UConn in 2013. This highly competitive fellowship, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), immerses outstanding scientists and engineers into federal policymaking to gain a stronger understanding of the intersection between science and policy.

As a fellow, Prof. Wagstrom worked at the EPA and, as a consequence, was able to observe the research grant funding process from an insider’s perspective, as well as how larger government decisions influence what science is funded and therefore carried out.

One outcome from her experience is discovering how to structure research proposals so they will be of use in future policy decision making, and how to organize a project for potential maximum impact. “There are often minor ways to change a project to make it more accessible to policymakers,” she says.

Prof. Wagstrom’s experience will undoubtedly benefit her research and contributions to the department. More information on Prof. Wagstrom’s research is available on her website here.

 

REU Student Innovators Wow Business Community

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

 

The Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program provides undergraduates with exposure to a stimulating research environment.  The students participating in the REU program had the opportunity to present their work during the July 26 Innovation Connection academic/industry networking event hosted at Nerac in Tolland and co-sponsored by Nerac and OpenSky. Nerac president Kevin Bouley, who hosts a number of UConn start-ups in his Tolland facility, noted “This event showcases the collaborations between students, faculty and the private sector.  It was very interesting to see RPM Sustainable Technologies participate, given that they are located in the Nerac building as a launching pad for their commercial enterprise.”

Before an audience of entrepreneurs, small business gurus, state government officials, IP experts, faculty and members of the investment community, each young researcher/entrepreneur delivered a two-minute “elevator pitch” presentation of his/her work and then spoke in greater detail with attendees during the informal networking event.  The forum enabled the students to test their mettle in the real-world situation faced by entrepreneurs every day.

While all REU programs entail scholarly research, this innovation-oriented REU requires the students to participate in a business and entrepreneurship seminar taught by professor Richard Dino of the School of Business. Furthermore, the students’ research was co-sponsored by commercial businesses – a novel twist that underscores the commercial intent of the research challenges they addressed while working in the UConn faculty laboratories.

The REU theme was conceptualized by Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon, assistant professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence Robin Bienemann, and NSF began funding the project in 2012.  In his introductory remarks to the audience, Dr. McCutcheon explained the genesis of the Innovation REU and noted that his goal was to “introduce the students to applied science and the way products make it to market.”

The eight innovation REU students and their projects are summarized below.

reu15-300x220Joseph Amato (Univ. of Minnesota – Twin Cities) researched reactive spray deposition technology for the one-step production of catalysts and electrodes in fuel cells. His research aim was to improve the efficiency of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells for the fuel cell and fuel-cell automotive markets. Sponsor: Proton OnSite; faculty mentor: Dr. Radenka Maric (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Isaac Batty (California State Univ. – Long Beach) researched bio-oil production from the fast catalytic pyrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass (trees).  His objective was to investigate the effect of temperature and various catalyst/biomass ratios on the quality of bio-oil produced from biomass. Sponsor: W.R. Grace & Co.; faculty mentor: Dr. George Bollas (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Ryan Carpenter (Univ. of Buffalo)designed an experimental apparatus enabling researchers to observe the antimicrobial susceptibility of multispecies biofilms. Biofilms are common (e.g., dental plaques) and often contain multiple species of bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Biofilms are a costly problem for many industries, including food processing, oil recovery and medical implant operations.  Sponsor: BASF; faculty mentor: Dr. Leslie Shor (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

William Hale (UConn) sought to understand whether acetate and butyrate influence the anaerobic fermentation of waste glycerol – a byproduct from biodiesel production – into 1,3-propanediol. 1,3-propanediol is used in the manufacture of polyesters, solvents, lubricants and other products. Sponsor: RPM Sustainable Technologies; faculty advisor: Dr. Richard Parnas (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Justine Jesse (Univ. of Massachusetts) researched heat treatments that produce the strongest possible electrospun nanofibers, used in water filtration and industrial plants, without compromising performance. Sponsor: KX Technologies; faculty mentor: Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Kyle Karinshak (Univ. of Oklahoma) researched the photocatalytic degradation of a specific fluorescent dye in aqueous environments through the use of a titanium oxide/metal doped catalyst. Kyle found titanium oxide/metal-doped fly ash to be an effective catalyst enabling the degradation of the dye, which is released from textile plants and inhibits the passage of sunlight through water/ Sponsor: VeruTEK Corp.; faculty mentor: Dr. Steven Suib (Chemistry; Institute for Materials Science). Poster.

Zachariah Rueger (Iowa State Univ.) sought to maximize the specific surface area of activated carbon nanofiber nonwoven mats, which are used in water purification and for electricity generation in certain fuel cells. A greater surface area allows greater volumes of wastewater to be purified quickly. Sponsor: KX Technologies; faculty mentor: Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Kyle Stachowiak (Vanderbilt Univ.) researched techniques to optimize the atomic layer deposition of copper on a component, the rectenna, used to enhance the performance of solar cells. A rectenna collects solar radiation and converts it to usable energy. Techniques for applying copper more reliably will improve the efficiency of solar cells. Sponsor: Scitech Associates LLC; faculty mentor: Dr. Brian Willis (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Grad Student Spotlight: Jason White

By Jayna Miller

JasonWhite2The chemical engineering graduate program at the University of Connecticut is comprised of bright, innovative leaders who are motivated by change and challenge. The program offers the opportunity for students to enhance their skills and develop their potential.

One student who can attest to the merits of this program is Jason White. Jason completed his undergraduate degree at UConn, and decided he wanted to continue his research here after enjoying his undergraduate experience. Throughout his time at UConn, Jason has worked with Dr. Ranjan Srivastava on analyzing biological systems and developing computational tools that deal with human health-related problems. These analyses have implications towards personalized medicine for each patient.

“Our goal is to use computational tools to understand how a disease progresses and to analyze whether treatments for patients are optimal,” Jason says. Genetic algorithms are one such method that Jason employs to develop mathematical models of biological systems from experimental data sets. He anticipates that these models could be used to help personalize medicinal treatments on a patient-by-patient basis. For instance, he created a mathematical model of an oral mucositis system, which can be simulated to help predict the outcome and potential treatment options for patients suffering with this disease.

In addition to his research, Jason has also been involved in a number of campus activities. His favorite was the GK-12 Program sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which allowed him to work once a week with technical high school students.

“I enjoyed the GK-12 experience – it gave me the freedom to develop lessons and projects, but also to continue my research as well,” he says. Through this program, he was able to work with students to build a compost water-heating system, which was presented at Lemelson-MIT’s Eureka Fest. Jason has also helped motivate students to get involved in engineering by tutoring undergraduates from Grasso Tech and by serving as a TA at UConn. In the future, Jason plans to pursue these interests and become a professor, so he can maintain the balance between teaching and his research.

During his time at UConn, Jason has earned a number of accolades for his work, such as a Unilever Scholarship, an Arnold Griffin Scholarship, and an NSF GK-12 Fellowship. He has also published two proceedings in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

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.

nieh_muhping_profile

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.