Two ENG Faculty Win NSF CAREER Awards

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Assistant Professor Hatice Altug (ECE)
Assistant Professor Hatice Altug (ECE)

Assistant Professors Hatice Altug (ECE) and Katherine Yanhang Zhang (ME) have each received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award in recognition of their outstanding research and teaching capabilities. The five-year, $400,000 award funds high-impact projects that effectively combine research and educational objectives.

Altug will use her award to advance new bio-detection platforms for the large-scale study of proteins, from their detection and quantification to the determination of their functions and interactions. Such systems could lead to a better understanding of cellular physiology, improve diagnostic tools and accelerate the discovery of new drugs for cancer, Alzheimer’s and other complex diseases. They could also be adapted for the study of other biological molecules, chemicals and gases and the development of public health and national security applications.

Assistant Professor Katherine Yanhang Zhang (ME)
Assistant Professor Katherine Yanhang Zhang (ME)

“With this grant, I will able to invent and explore novel on-chip optical biosensors that can significantly impact medicine and the health sciences,” said Altug. “The grant will also enable me to integrate a solid education plan with my research to train scientists and engineers of all ages. I am looking forward to significantly enhancing nanotechnology education and outreach.”

Altug will disseminate her findings to the public through Boston’s Museum of Science, local educational programs such as Boston Upward Bound Math and Science, and Boston University’s Summer Challenge program on engineering. At the College of Engineering, she will add experimental modules to the new courses that she introduced for the recently implemented nanotechnology concentration.

Supported by her CAREER award, Zhang is creating a novel experimental method to investigate mechanical properties and forces within the extracellular matrix (ECM), a network of proteins that provides structural support and facilitates communication between tissues and cells. She is also assessing the impact of tissue-level mechanical loading on these properties and forces.

Communication signals between cells and tissues play key roles in establishing tissue structure-function relationships and controlling cell fate, but scientists know little about how mechanical forces are translated within the ECM from the tissue to cellular level. Zhang’s experimental method seeks to improve our understanding of the mechanisms by which ECM mechanics influence cell and tissue behavior—and the onset of pathology in which altered mechanics play important roles. This new knowledge could generate advances in cellular and tissue engineering, biomaterials and other fields.

Zhang will share the fruits of her research in several existing outreach activities at Boston University that reflect the need for early intervention and mentorship in increasing the participation of women and minorities in science and engineering. In addition, she aims to establish an attractive and collaborative learning environment to help students acquire knowledge across disciplines.

“This award will enable me to leverage my prior work in ECM network mechanics and biomaterials, thereby expediting the progress and impact of my research,” said Zhang. “It will also lead to the development of a new graduate-level course in mechanical and biomedical engineering that will help young students see the multi-scale and multidisciplinary role mechanics plays in the emerging field of biomaterials.”