Dean’s Catalyst Awards to Fund Innovative Research
The College of Engineering has funded five new projects through the Dean’s Catalyst Award (DCA) grant program, each focused on disruptive technologies ranging from biologically-based computers to the genetic modification of brain cells. The projects will receive a total of $160,000 to develop novel techniques to advance these technologies.
Established by Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen in 2007 and organized by a faculty committee, the annual DCA program encourages early-stage, innovative, interdisciplinary projects that could spark new advances in a variety of engineering fields. By providing each project with seed funding, the awards give full-time faculty the opportunity to generate initial proof-of-concept results that could help secure external funding.
This year’s DCA-winning projects could yield new applications in healthcare, energy, computation, communications and defense.
Assistant Professors Douglas Densmore (ECE) and Ahmad “Mo” Khalil (BME) plan to combine microfluidics and synthetic biology approaches to construct reconfigurable, multicellular genetic circuits, such as a “Bio‐Fluidic Programmable Logic Array” that enables selected biological organisms to perform multiple computational operations. Built from off-the-shelf biological parts, this programmable device may ultimately be used in bioremediation, biosensing and other applications.
Combining their expertise in wave sensing and biomedicine, Associate Professors J. Gregory McDaniel (ME) and Joyce Wong (BME, MSE) propose a novel approach for measuring material properties of human tissue in vivo using the vibrations of tiny microspheres attached to the tissue surface that are set in motion by an ultrasound pulse. By illustrating the potential to measure the resonance frequency of the microspheres and relate it to material properties, the researchers expect to create an entirely new and significant avenue of exploration and discovery that could lead to improved diagnosis and therapy for tumors and coronary heart disease.
Despite high expectations for their use in many energy and lab-on-a-chip applications, today’s nanochannel devices, which rely on nanoscale conduits to transport fluids, display very low rates of fluid transport due to hydrophilic, or water-absorbent, components. Aiming to significantly boost fluid flow through these channels, Professor Xin Zhang (ME, MSE) and Assistant Professors Chuanhua Duan (ME) and Xi Lin (ME) plan to use a new fabrication process to develop the first-ever hydrophobic, or water-resistant, graphene nanochannel device and investigate its use in novel energy harvesting applications.
Professor Soumendra Basu (ME, MSE) and Associate Professor Siddharth Ramachandran (ECE) will attempt to design novel semiconductor core optical fibers that can guide mid-infrared (IR) light over tens of meters, the order of fiber-lengths needed for non-telecommunications applications such as jamming heat-seeking missiles or detecting bioterror threats. Their ultimate goal is to develop alternatives to conventional silica optical fibers, in which transmission losses increase dramatically at wavelengths in the mid-IR part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Genetic modification of brain cells for correcting brain disorders remains a major challenge, but Professor Mark Grinstaff (BME, MSE) and Assistant Professor Xue Han (BME) propose to develop a novel method to achieve this efficiently in vivo by introducing DNA to a broad spectrum of brain cells with a new generation of lipids. Their method could open up new frontiers in targeted gene expression in specific cells in animal models for basic neuroscience research and eventually in human gene therapies.