Dean’s Catalyst Awards Spark Innovation and Collaboration

in NEWS, Spotlight Faculty, Spotlight Research

The 2020 winners announced

By Liz Sheeley

To win grants and funds from large institutions, researchers must show proof-of-concept on their new ideas. This initial investment can be risky, and that is why the Dean’s Catalyst Awards (DCAs) were set up over a decade ago at the College of Engineering.

Established in 2007 by Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen, the DCAs reward collaboration and innovation within the faculty. The competitive grant gives projects seed funding for two years to explore new areas of interest that could spark long-term research endeavors and yield new applications across fields.

These grants have fostered more collaboration within the College of Engineering and within the University as a whole. In recent years, the $1 million investment in the program has produced at least 19 grant proposals, resulting in $7.9 million in funding from institutions such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. DCA research has resulted in 35 journal or conference papers published or under review and another 11 in preparation.

This year, the Dean and selection committee chose five projects to fund:

Nanocombinatorial Electrochemistry for Ultrathin Polymer Electrolytes, Joerg Werner (ME) and Keith Brown (ME):

Werner and Brown are teaming up to combine their expertise to develop a new method of manufacturing and studying thin electrochemical films that could potentially revolutionize battery technology.

Right now, efficient energy storage is arguably the single largest barrier to widespread adoption of renewable energy and electric cars. The current technology used to store electricity that is generated, but not used, are high-capacity batteries using the same fundamental technology that has been around for decades. One of the major drawbacks of that technology is the give-and-take associated with scaling up batteries: if you increase the energy capacity, you decrease the energy output, and vice versa.

The thin electrochemical film Werner and Brown propose would overcome this deficiency and allow for high-capacity, high-output batteries.

Probing Mechano-Immunological Interactions between Lung Carcinoma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Hadi Nia (BME) and Bela Suki (BME):

Current cancer-drug development research methods are useful in understanding how a drug will interact with a specific type of cancer cell. But, with lung cancer, drug effectiveness could be stunted by how a patient breathes or if a patient has other lung diseases like COPD. Patients with COPD have an increased risk of developing lung cancer because the two diseases share risk factors like cigarette smoking and premature lung aging.

Nia and Suki’s new research will build a novel experimentation system that will be able to integrate long-term mechanobiology features (like breathing) into drug development research. In addition to creating the environment for physical stress, this model will also allow the researchers to personalize the cell types in both the tumor and non-tumor cells. This personalization will allow them to study how lung cells affected by COPD and cancer will react to cancer drugs—something that is currently unknown. It will also let them study how the mechanical stress of breathing affects the immune response in lung cells affected by COPD, something that is also unknown.

Investigating Complex Scene Analysis in Humans with Wearable fNIRS and EEG, Kamal Sen (BME), David Boas (BME) and Laura Lewis (BME):

Humans have evolved to experience complex environments and scenes by selectively attending to specific objects or people and drown out the other pieces. But those with impairment disorders such as ADHD, autism and hearing impairments, have difficulty doing this, making social situations and public outings often confusing and overwhelming.

Sen, Boas and Lewis will study how the normal human brain solves complex scene analysis, potentially leading to pathways we can explore to improve the quality of life in those with impairment disorders. Boas and Lewis bring their expertise in brain imaging, and Sen his work in auditory processing.

Real Time Measurement of Disinformation Campaigns, Gianluca Stringhini (ECE) and Chris Wells (COMS/CAS):

Stringhini studies how disinformation starts and then circulates through the internet after the fact. This research will create a web application to for anyone to interactively explore disinformation campaigns and come to a better understanding of how information transmits through the web. Wells, an assistant professor in emerging media studies, will inform how the new tool communicates with users.

The researchers hope to make the new tool available before the 2020 presidential election to help identify false information on the web so voters can make the most informed decision. This tool is aimed at identifying fake social media accounts and how posts on those sites are disseminated into conversations happening on real accounts.

Usually identification of false information and accounts only takes place after the bad information has made its way through to mainstream media and social networks, but with this tool Stringhini and Wells hopes users can identify misinformation as its being spread, find the source and report it as false information.

The Transition from Tolerance to Resistance: New Dimensions in Antimicrobial Resistance, Muhammad Zaman (BME) and Ahmad Khalil (BME):

Antimicrobial resistance has become a widespread issue in the past couple of decades due to high antibiotic exposure paired with the pipeline of new antibiotics drying up. Several recent studies have concluded that millions may die by 2050 from antimicrobial resistance if the problem continues at the current rate.

Zaman and Khalil’s research proposes to study how low-quality medicines contribute to antimicrobial resistance, which is currently unknown. Substandard drugs are most common in low- and middle-income countries, where there is already a high burden of antimicrobial resistance. Substandard drugs include those with inappropriate amounts of active ingredients, poor dissolution, or increased impurities or degradation products.

Zaman has been working on methods to test drugs in the field without advanced lab equipment for years to mitigate not only antimicrobial resistance, but also side effects from substandard drugs other than antibiotics. Khalil’s lab recently developed a new automated and quantitative growth platform for cells called eVOLVER that will drive this new research.

By using eVOLVER, the researchers will be able to study how bacteria grow and respond to different quality of medicines, and how they develop tolerance and resistance.