In the News
Mingxu You Receives NSF Career Award
Chemistry's Mingxu You Receives NSF Career Award for "A Generalized Quantitative Imaging Approach for Small Molecules using Genetically Engineered RNA Sensors."
Mingxu You's long-term goal is to develop nucleic acid-based next-generation sensor platforms for cell biology studies and disease diagnostics. The overarching goal of his proposal is to engineer an RNA-based general sensing system for the quantitative measurement of metabolites, signaling molecules, and synthetic small molecules in living cells. These RNA-based sensors can be modularly adapted for the measurement of various analytes in individual cells, widely applicable in many clinical, industrial, and ecological settings.
Nature’s Version of Autocorrect
Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan, chemistry, has big plans for the $1.8 million National Science Foundation grant the campus has received to create a multi-university Center for Autonomous Chemistry. He and his colleagues, including fellow chemist Vince Rotello, seek to design artificial self-activating systems that mimic how biological systems respond automatically to subtle changes in their environment. Thayumanavan calls the process “automatic control as nature does it.”
He cites as an example the many components of the immune system that remain quiet and dormant until an irritant or pathogen is detected. “Once that happens,” says Thayumanavan, “it’s activated. It’s automatic, organically driven; that’s what we refer to as autonomous. The response requires no other intervention.” Thayumanavan knows of no current artificial systems with that capability and adds, “It would be really valuable if we could develop something like it. We want to figure out the ways in which nature uses molecular interactions to create autonomous function.”
Autonomous chemistry has a broad range of applications. Thayumanavan says that personalized medicine has a high profile at the moment and that the need for this type of innovation is widely and readily understood.
Manufacturing electrically heated textiles that are lightweight, flexible, and washable.
Professor of Chemistry Trisha Andrew and Morgan Baima ’18PhD both like to think with a practical eye on scientific problems. The two formed to merge technology and textiles—Soliyarn.
Soliyarn’s first product will be an innovation that’s gotten lots of attention, including from Nike, Under Armour, and U.S. military special operations: electrically heated garments, starting with gloves made from ordinary fabric coated with super-thin conductive polymers via a process developed in Andrew’s UMass lab. The gloves are powered by a tiny battery and are lightweight, flexible, and washable. “It’s a simple and useful application for our new technology,” says Andrew. Andrew and Baima predict that the buyers of their heated gloves and other garments will include motorcyclists, winter athletes, and outdoor workers, and they foresee further mergers of tech and textiles. “You could give me a T-shirt,” Andrew says, “and we could paint an electronically active pattern on it with our coating that could tell you your heart rate, measure your blood sugar, or store a charge.” Or, she says, Soliyarn could make a high-fashion gown that heats up, generates power as its skirt swirls, and stores power, too. One day, you will be able to sew or knit all kinds of electronic devices using coated threads. How about a car seat? Or a baby bottle warmer? A curtain that harvests solar energy?
Hands-on research is a hallmark of undergraduate education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. We honor eight students from across campus with the Rising Researcher Award in recognition of their demonstrated leadership and impact in their chosen field of study. For Commonwealth Honors College student Bianca Edozie ’19, the opportunity to work in Professor Jenny Ross’ lab helped “ignite a passion for research I never knew I had.” A double major in chemistry, and biochemistry and molecular biology, Edozie works on projects that explore various behavioral aspects of microtubules—stiff, structural elements found in animal cells. Microtubules help form the spindle apparatus during cell division and can act as an intra-cellular transport system, among other things.
Her current project centers on creating “tactoids”, biologically relevant microtubule organizations that act as model mitotic spindles in the lab. The model allows Edozie and other researchers to explore the effects of proteins and enzymes on mitotic spindle organization. She recently published a paper with Ross that is now under review at Soft Matter. “Bianca is a brilliant student and one of the hardest working people I have ever met,” says Ross. Ross notes that Edozie represented UMass at a Research Experience for Undergraduates, which took place at Brandeis University. “She took new data, and performed incredibly difficult dynamics experiments that will continue this year as part of her honors thesis. This work will likely result in a second manuscript. I see no end to her possible future leadership in whatever field she continues,” says Ross.
In addition to her myriad technical skills, Edozie says she has learned independence in the lab setting, troubleshooting, and how to be confident. “My project has been more than just the research itself, but more specifically, what the research required me to learn as an aspiring scientist. I’ve acquired a wealth of knowledge, both new and supplemental to my education in the classroom,” says Edozie. She plans to attend graduate school in the fall.
In recognition of his demonstrated leadership, Mark Leon-Duque ’19, chemistry, was honored with the Rising Researcher Award. Leon-Duque transferred to UMass Amherst as a second-year student interested in getting a medical degree. A sophomore seminar class offered at that time introduced Leon-Duque to research projects underway on campus. “I promptly contacted Dr. Mingxu You (chemistry) asking to shadow his lab members and by the spring semester, I was working on a project, handling the experimental portions and some of the analysis,” says Leon-Duque.
In the first two years of his time at the You lab, Leon-Duque worked closely with research fellow Aruni P.K.K. Karunanayake Mudiyanselag. Together they developed a new RNA-based imaging system for detecting small RNA molecules within live cells. “Our efforts and the resulting manuscript was published in The Journal of The American Chemical Society. I tested a few of our designs independently that earned me my name as third co-author on the publication. Currently, I am working independently on expanding this imaging system to apply to other small molecules,” says Leon-Duque.
“Publishing my first paper with Aruni and all the other contributors gave me such an exhilarated rush, a true sense of accomplishment,” says Leon-Duque. “The project also taught me things that are completely out of the scope of the typical chemistry undergrad curriculum. I know that I want to do research, whether it will be in academia or in industry remains to be revealed. Nevertheless, I feel my sense of purpose and I will tread this path will diligence and my best effort,” he notes.
“Mark has demonstrated great potential to be an independent scientist. He can learn new techniques and knowledge very quickly and his results are repeatable and trustable,” says You.
Chemistry's own Vincent Rotello is one of twelve researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who have been recognized for being among the world’s most highly cited researchers in 2018.
The analysis by Philadelphia-based Clarivate Analytics, owner of Web of Science, serves as the basis for regular listings of researchers whose citation records put them in the top one percent by citations for their field and year.
These scientists are judged to be “influential,” and their citation records are seen as “a mark of exceptional impact,” the company says. This year’s list from UMass Amherst includes five more than the seven named in 2017. Placement on the list has been recognized as a significant achievement for those named, Clarivate says.
The twelve recognized for 2018 are astronomers Daniela Calzetti and Mauro Giavalisco; polymer science and engineering professor Thomas P. Russell; microbiologist Derek Lovley, environmental scientist Baoshan Xing of the Stockbridge School, chemist Vincent Rotello and his former graduate student Chaekyu Kim, and food scientists Eric Decker, David Julian McClements, Yeonhwa Park, Hang Xiao and their former graduate student Cheng Qian.
Prof. Gabriela Weaver, Special Assistant to the Provost for Educational Initiatives, was a recent guest panelist on the 22News program InFocus which discussed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education programs in higher education.
Weaver was joined by other area educators in describing integrations, mentorship, and outreach programs connected with STEM fields. Weaver explained mentorship roles as a key component to retaining students and how they can lead to internship opportunities providing hands on experience and opens the door to explore new fields. UMass Amherst has partnered with Girls Inc. of Holyoke through a program called Eureka! to offer unique opportunities for girls to help tackle the gender gap in the STEM fields. The Girls Inc. participants grades 8-12 spend a month working with various faculty on projects in STEM fields to encourage the young women into related courses of study.
Rotello Delivers Keynote at Science Teachers’ Conference
Vincent Rotello, Distinguished Professor of chemistry, delivered the Nov. 2 keynote, “Multidisciplinary Thinking Outside the Box: Fighting Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria using Nanomaterials,” at the annual conference of the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers in Boxborough.
Rotello talked about his work on the emergence of new antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is rapidly accelerating, with strains resistant to all known antibiotics beginning to be observed. These multi-drug-resistant (MDR) bacteria are a rapidly emerging threat to human health, causing thousands of deaths each year in the U.S. alone.
Rotello says, “In our research we have brought together chemistry, biology and even a bit of physics to create new nanosponges 100-300 nanometers in diameter. These nanosponges are highly effective against bacteria and are not harmful to mammalian cells (including red blood cells), making them promising treatments for both wound and internal infections.”
A major factor holding back development of wearable biosensors for health monitoring is the lack of a lightweight, long-lasting power supply. Now scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst led by materials chemist Trisha L. Andrew report that they have developed a method for making a charge-storing system that is easily integrated into clothing for “embroidering a charge-storing pattern onto any garment.”
As Andrew explains, “Batteries or other kinds of charge storage are still the limiting components for most portable, wearable, ingestible or flexible technologies. The devices tend to be some combination of too large, too heavy and not flexible.”
Their new method uses a micro-supercapacitor and combines vapor-coated conductive threads with a polymer film, plus a special sewing technique to create a flexible mesh of aligned electrodes on a textile backing. The resulting solid-state device has a high ability to store charge for its size, and other characteristics that allow it to power wearable biosensors.
Researchers across the Five Colleges will gather together in a series of “RNA Salons” that will include undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs. and faculty with research interests in the rapidly growing areas of RNA science. RNA Society members Katie Berry (Asst Prof at Mount Holyoke College), Mandy Muller (Asst Prof in Microbiology at UMass) and Prof Craig Martin from Chemistry recently received a grant from the RNA Society to support these new RNA Salons.
The first Salon, to be held on November 6, will feature a talk by graduate student Qikun Yu, from Asst Prof Mingxu Yu’s lab in Chemistry. Contact Prof Craig Martin or Prof Mingxu You for additional talk information.
Kristen Sikora awarded 2018 PPG fellowship
Congratulations to Kristen Sikora from the Vachet research group for being selected as the 2018 recipient of the PPG fellowship sponsored by the PPG foundation. This fellowship is competitively awarded to an outstanding Chemistry graduate student who does research in materials chemistry.
Trisha L. Andrew, associate professor of chemistry, recently received a $2,500 L’Oréal USA Changing the Face of STEM grant to increase hands-on research opportunities for community college students.
Over the 2018-19 academic year, Andrew and her research group will train interns from Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) to create garment-integrated sensors, an effort that she hopes will “entice a diverse student population to become scientists and fortify the number of underrepresented students in chemistry and engineering.”
STCC offers students a program called STEM Starter Academy to enhance students’ readiness for STEM jobs or to transfer to a four-year academic STEM program. Andrew has previously participated in annual “maker” events organized by STCC and has worked with STCC faculty to encourage graduates of its Starter Academy to pursue degrees at UMass Amherst.
With this grant, Andrew says she plans to provide potential interns with a stipend, an important step in growing the program and establishing deeper ties with STCC.