Alpen Steel | Renewable Energy

From Solar Power to Proteins, New Generation of Pitt Faculty Receives Awards to Explore Future Technologies and Health Care

PITTSBURGH-Six University of Pittsburgh faculty members have received more than
$3.73 million to advance the futures of energy, health, and technology as part of Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards they received this year from the National Science Foundation.

The five-year awards fund junior faculty members' emerging careers and include an education component that encourages outreach to women and underrepresented groups.

Four recipients are researchers in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences: Lillian Chong, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry; Gurudev Dutt, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy; Michael Grabe, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences; and Megan Spence, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.

In Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, Lance Davidson, an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering, and Jung-Kun Lee, an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, also received awards. Funds for Grabe, Dutt, and Lee's projects come from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Pitt is among 41 schools to receive six or more of the 694 CAREER awards granted in the 2008-09 award cycle that ended Sept. 30. Among other schools receiving six awards are Duke University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

A description of each Pitt recipient's research and the educational component are below.

In her research, Lillian Chong seeks to better understand how molecular malfunctions correspond to various diseases by investigating, via computer simulations, the way that proteins fold, bind to their partners, and catalyze reactions.

Her more than $698,000 CAREER project could lead to improved therapeutic and molecular sensors that work by binding biological molecules-such as when gauging glucose levels in diabetic patients-or environmental molecules, such as pollutant detectors. Chong will explore the unusual behavior of natively unfolded proteins, or proteins that lack a well-defined structure.

These proteins only fold when binding with partner proteins, an action that challenges the consensus that proteins bind more quickly when prefolded. Chong will compare the speed with which unfolded proteins bind to that of proteins that fold prior to binding. Moreover, since this experiment cannot be conducted in a laboratory, Chong could help expand the potential of simulated research by illustrating rare instances of protein binding and allowing the study of realistic binding rates without forcing the events to occur.

For the educational component, Chong will continue her work of helping students become more effective and engaging researchers and instructors by designing a graduate course in scientific presentations. She currently has her undergraduate students create 5-minute videos and podcasts that explain the latest in scientific research, an idea she hopes to extend to other universities and organize as a national conference.

Lance Davidson will delve into a $500,000 project to understand how embryos use molecular-, cell-, and tissue-scale processes to shape tissues and organs, then use his results to aid in the construction of artificial tissues. Davidson will examine how genes dictate the mechanics of mesenchymal stem cells, which are instrumental in the development of muscles, connective tissue, bone and cartilage, and the lymphatic and circulatory systems. Coordinated, loosely packed groups of mesenchymal cells migrate, rearrange, and change shape to construct the body, but there is little explanation as to how the hundreds of thousands of participating genes and cells work together to drive body movement. Davidson seeks to decipher the cellular mechanics responsible for rapid phases of tissue sculpting, assess how cell behavior changes in various environments, and reveal the mechanical coordination of mesenchymal tissue growth and development. The interdisciplinary training for biologists and tissue engineers working on the project will help devise a framework important for both fields.

Gurudev Dutt studies quantum systems, atom-sized applications that show significant potential in next-generation technologies, particularly transistors as well as information processing and storage devices far superior to current computers. With his $550,000 grant, Dutt will explore how to control the quantum coherence (the phase of electron waves) and quantum entanglement (linking of atoms for combined power) of these highly advanced systems. Coherence and entanglement would allow the atoms in quantum systems to function cooperatively, increasing an electronic device's power and speed. Dutt will use diamond-based materials and nanostructures to test how coherence and entanglement behave in a solid-state environment similar to that of an electronic device. Graduate and undergraduate students working on the project will learn advanced experimental techniques widely used in modern physics laboratories to study quantum properties. Dutt and his group also will develop computer simulations and learning games that explain important physics topics and current research, which will be made available to the general public to motivate aspiring scientists.

Michael Grabe received a $932,252 grant to explore the correlation between cell function and the proteins contained in the cell membrane. Membrane proteins dictate a cell's ability to sense and respond to its environment, as well as regulate essential cell activity, such as the flow of molecules in and out of a cell. An unstable membrane protein may function incorrectly, be targeted for removal from the membrane, or accumulate in the wrong place in the cell. Improperly functioning proteins are linked to a number of nervous system and heart disorders and misplaced or absent proteins can result in cystic fibrosis and related conditions.

Grabe seeks to better understand the basic physics and chemistry of how these proteins meld with the membrane and the roots of protein malfunction. He and his group will create realistic computer models that simulate the insertion of these proteins into the membrane and their removal. Grabe plans to make the software associated with his work freely available.

For the educational component, Grabe will develop a mathematical biology course (and textbook) that trains undergraduate students in the mathematics needed to understand cutting-edge technologies in biology. He has also been developing a summer course in basic mathematics for high school students in Pittsburgh's School-to-Career Teen Program.

Jung-Kun Lee intends to produce advanced versions of the technology used in solar panels and flat-panel displays, aiming for more efficient solar-power cells and optoelectronic devices. His $400,000 project will focus on the next generation of transparent conducting oxides (TCOs)-the essential technology in solar panels and flat panel displays-that would allow for increased control and energy harvesting of light.

Lee will look at molding metallic nanoparticles into novel nanocomposites-materials with multiple nanoscale dimensions that would increase the concentration of electron carriers without sacrificing their mobility. This will lead to more efficient transport of electricity.

Lee plans to translate his lab work into Pitt's existing renewable energy and nanotechnology curriculums by developing a course that focuses on the correlation between solar energy and nanomaterials. In addition, he hopes to produce a prototype solar cell for outreach to Pittsburgh-area high school students with an emphasis on underrepresented groups.

Megan Spence will undertake a $650,000 effort to help expand the study of lipid rafts and related illnesses that affect the brain and nervous system. Lipid rafts are cholesterol-rich “islands” in cell membranes that sort and organize the membrane proteins involved in cell-to-cell and protein-to-protein communication. These rafts are thought to play an essential role in the way viruses and bacteria enter cells as well as in such illnesses as Alzheimer's disease.

Spence will investigate the role of membrane proteins in altering the size of lipid rafts. As lipid rafts are too small to view with an optical microscope, she will develop a novel microscope combining solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), allowing for rafts as small as 200 nanometers to be measured.

This technique could help advance the understanding of how lipid rafts sort proteins and how a cell creates and destroys lipid rafts over its lifetime. Spence also plans to develop a one-credit undergraduate class focusing on research skills and laboratory culture that will be offered to sophomore science majors, to prepare them to carry out scientific research as undergraduates.

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