Dean’s Catalyst Awards Support Promising, Early-Stage Projects


By Mark Dwortzan

Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 11.13.03 AMThe College of Engineering has funded five new projects through the Dean’s Catalyst Award (DCA) grant program, each focused on technologies with the potential to make a significant impact on society. The projects will receive a total of $114,000 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 develop collaborations and 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, information systems and defense.

Associate Professor Tyrone Porter (ME, BME) and Professor Jianlin Gong (MED) will apply their DCA funding to design and test a new method to encapsulate the drug cisplatin—the standard of care for ovarian cancer—in nanoparticles. Conventional high-dose chemotherapy with cisplatin has led to severe kidney dysfunction, but the researchers’ strategic packaging of the drug within polymer nanoparticles could enable it to target ovarian cancer cells while dramatically reducing its toxic effects on the kidneys.

Assistant Professor Aaron Schmidt (ME) and Associate Professor Srikanth Gopalan (ME, MSE) plan to engineer an efficient thermoelectric material that can recover waste heat at temperatures between 700 and 1000 degrees Celsius and convert it to electricity. Such materials can be retrofitted to boilers, furnaces, power plants and diesel engines to improve overall energy efficiency.

Assistant Professor Jonathan Klamkin (ECE, MSE) aims to develop ultra-high-speed and energy-efficient nanophotonic devices that exploit graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms that’s less than one nanometer thick and exhibits unique electrical and optical properties that can significantly improve the performance of electronics, optoelectronics, sensors and photovoltaics. Nanophotonic devices that incorporate graphene layers in a silicon photonics platform could be used in optical interconnects for data centers and high-performance computers, and in image sensors.

Assistant Professor Wilson Wong (BME) and Associate Professor Heng-ye Man (Biology) propose to create a novel set of tools that will allow genetic manipulation of specific populations of mammalian neurons so as to better understand the structure and function of individual cell types in the human brain. Such understanding would help clarify which cell populations are responsible for specific neural functions that are essential for cognition and the progression of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.

Associate Professor Sheryl Grace (ME) and Professor David Mountain (BME) will use their DCA funding to conduct a pilot study to investigate whether infrasound (frequencies below 20 Hz) and low-frequency noise (ILFN) can lead to symptoms reported by residents living near some wind turbine installations. Known as “wind turbine syndrome,” these symptoms include nausea, vertigo and disturbed sleep. The researchers plan to determine if ILFN directly activates the vestibular system or outer hair cells of the inner ear and subsequently triggers such symptoms in humans.