In the News

Mingxu You is Inventing New DNA-based Probes

Assistant professor Mingxu You, chemistry, recently received a five-year, $1.9 million NIH Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) to fund his research in developing new tools – DNA-based probes – to quantify intercellular mechanical forces and understand a variety of mechano-sensitive cell signaling events at the molecular level.

As he explains, intercellular forces are critical regulators in many physiological and pathological processes, but scientists have until recently lacked the tools and approaches to characterize these mechanical events. “It is a whole new way to understand growth, division, intercellular motion and interaction,” You says. Cells are usually touching each other or a substrate, pushing and pulling each other to work together as a tissue, an organ and at the whole body level, he adds. But these forces are so tiny and ever-changing, it is very hard to see how cells are physically communicating with each other, for example, during development, cell differentiation, normal physiological and various disease processes.

The You Lab, which includes postdoctoral researcher Bin Zhao and chemistry Ph.D. students Yousef Bagheri and Puspam Keshri, will team with biologists Barbara Osborne and Tom Maresca, Lisa Minter of veterinary and animal sciences and Yubing Sun, mechanical and industrial engineering, to further develop these DNA-based tools to visualize, monitor and quantify such cellular forces. You says, “In the near future, people will be able to apply these tools broadly to depict the basic principles of tissue morphogenesis, growth, and homeostasis. They will serve as a critical foundation for developing novel strategies in tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, immunotherapy and cancer treatment.”

Specifically, You says, “We are interested in the Notch signaling pathway. It’s widely conserved in most cells and organisms, very common to find, and it’s interesting because it’s really simple. There are only five Notch ligands and four Notch receptors but they regulate quite a diverse range of downstream functions,” he adds.

 

Inaugural Manning/IALS Seed Grants for Hardy and Thayumanavan

Peter Reinhart, director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), has announced that six campus research teams have been named recipients of the first Manning/IALS Seed Grants. The awards will support next steps in their research such as proof-of-concept studies and business development, fundamental research into new products, technologies and services to benefit human health and wellbeing.

Earlier this year, alumnus Paul Manning and his wife, Diane, committed $1 million through their family foundation to establish the Manning Innovation Program. It provides three years of support in advancing a robust and sustainable pipeline of applied and translational research projects from UMass Amherst.

The seed grants announced this week were awarded after a competitive process that narrowed 35 teams to six winners. Faculty researchers will receive seed funding of $100,000 each over three years, along with business training and mentorship from IALS, the College of Natural Sciences, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship and the Isenberg School of Management, among others.

Chemistry’s winning team leaders and their projects are:

• Jeanne Hardy, chemistry, “Development of Potent Zika Virus Protease Inhibitors”

• S. “Thai” Thayumanavan, chemistry, and Steve Faraci, “Pre-Clinical efficacy evaluation of liver-targeted, thyromimetic-encapsulated IntelliGels for the treatment of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)”

Acquah Speaks at Dedication in Honor of Nobel Prize Winner Sir Harold Kroto

Steve Acquah, adjunct research professor of chemistry and Digital Media Lab coordinator at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, spoke at the dedication of the Florida State University (FSU) Chemical Sciences Laboratory Auditorium in honor of Nobel Prize winner Sir Harold Kroto on Friday, Oct. 4.

Acquah, the former manager of the Kroto Research Group at FSU, received his doctorate at the University of Sussex, England, under the supervision of Kroto. Acquah gave a talk titled “Beyond the Possible” that highlighted his work at UMass Amherst and showed how Kroto’s legacy lives on through his work at the UMass Libraries Digital Media Lab, his chemistry laboratory and the Global Educational Outreach for Science Engineering and Technology (GEOSET) initiative.

Florida State named the chemistry auditorium after Kroto – who died in 2016 – and the university’s department of chemistry and biochemistry placed an art piece of a buckyball designed by FSU’s Master Craftsman Studio in the foyer outside the auditorium. The buckyball was unveiled by Kroto's widow, Lady Margaret Kroto.

The day after the dedication, a buckyball workshop for children was led by Jonathan Hare, who was a member of the original team that included Kroto that isolated C60. In the workshop the children learned about the life of Richard Buckminster Fuller and Kroto before building their own model of a buckyball. Acquah said, “The buckyball workshop was one of Harold Kroto’s favorite ways to get children involved in the sciences and hands-on activities.”

Acquah, who is also a 2019-20 UMass Sustainability Curriculum Fellow, co-instructs the “Makerspace Leadership and Outreach” course with Charlie Schweik, School of Public Policy, at the All-Campus Makerspace. “The maker movement is exactly what Sir Harold Kroto would have been passionate to support,” Acquah says. “He always spoke about how owning a Meccano set helped him develop the skills he would use for research. The students in the class exemplify the creative talents at UMass Amherst.”

112th Metawampe Hike Sunday, November 3, 2019

The 112th annual Metawampe Hike will be held Sunday, November 3 starting at noon (12PM) from the former Ashram parking lot (to the right of the white picket fence and behind a barrier of trees) on Route 63 (#438) about 5 miles north of the North Amherst traffic lights (near Cumberland Farms). Hikers meet at 11:30 AM at the corner of Park, Claybrook and North Mountain Roads in Sunderland (for directions use 98 Claybrook Road, Sunderland). [SAME AS LAST YEAR] This is the location where the Metawampe Hike trail exits the woods. At 11:45AM we will carpool and drive a minimum number of the cars to bring all hikers to Ashram to begin the noon hike. Some may wish to meet us at Ashram at noon. At the end of the hike, using the cars left in Sunderland at the meeting point (also the endpoint of the hike) we will return to Ashram to retrieve the cars driven there earlier. The hike will be held rain or shine unless conditions are so treacherous as to be unsafe, in which case I will notify the e-mail list of hikers. Hikers should plan to bring whatever clothing, supplies, snacks, or water they need, nothing will be supplied. After the hike we will reconvene at a mutually agreed upon venue for needed libation and nourishment. This year we will not be holding the church supper, an event we do biannually in even years– next in 2020. The hike continues to be an annual event held on the first Sunday in November, the same Sunday when Daylight Saving Time ends! We realize that no date will be suitable for everyone but encourage all those who can make it to join us for this university tradition that dates back to 1908. The hike is from point to point and is of moderate difficulty, is about 5 miles in length, and usually takes about 3 hours or so, depending on conditions. Friends, spouses, children, pets - all are welcome. If you have any questions or would like a map showing the meeting point and hiking route contact Dave Adams, at adams@chem.umass.edu.

‘Phyjama’ to be introduced at Ubicomp

Graduate students Ali Kiaghadi and S. Zohreh Homayounfar, with their professors Trisha L. Andrew, a materials chemist, and computer scientist Deepak Ganesan, will introduce their health-monitoring sleepwear “phyjamas” at the Ubicomp 2019 conference this week in London, U.K.

As Andrew explains, “The challenge we faced was how to obtain useful signals without changing the aesthetics or feel of the textile. Generally, people assume that smart textiles refer to tightly worn clothing that has various sensors embedded in it for measuring physiological and physical signals, but this is clearly not a solution for everyday clothing and, in particular, sleepwear.”

“We expect that these advances can be particularly useful for monitoring elderly patients, many of whom suffer from sleep disorders,” says Andrew. “Current generation wearables, like smartwatches, are not ideal for this population since elderly individuals often forget to consistently wear or are resistant to wearing additional devices, while sleepwear is already a normal part of their daily life. More than that, your watch can’t tell you which position you sleep in, and whether your sleep posture is affecting your sleep quality; our Phyjama can.”

This work was enhanced by Ganesan and Andrew’s affiliation with UMass Amherst’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which focuses on translating life science research into products that improve human health. Director Peter Reinhart at IALS says, “It’s exciting to see the next generation of wearable technology that is zero effort and addresses the issue of comfort and unobtrusiveness head-on. The data generated by fabric-based sensors have the potential to improve health and well-being, and could possibly contribute to the early diagnosis of multiple disorders.”

Thayumanavan Awarded Distinction by Board of Trustees

Sankaran ‘Thai’ Thayumanavan was appointed as a Distinguished Professor by the Board of Trustees. The title Distinguished Professor is conferred on select, highly accomplished faculty who have already achieved the rank of professor and who meet a demanding set of qualifications.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and Provost John McCarthy wrote,“Professor Thayumanavan’s research is focused on the design and synthesis of supramolecular assemblies with novel functions that advance chemical, materials and biological sciences in applications that range from molecular recognition to drug delivery to renewable energy. His work is distinguished by a focus on dynamics, creating materials with the ability to respond across multiple length and time scales and following exposure to stimuli including pH, temperature, and light.

He currently has grants that run several years into the future: an NIH grant with a 1.0 percentile score (amazing), an NSF grant as a CCI, an ARO MURI grant, and several other federal funded applications that are still running (an NIH R01, industrial sponsors) and many previous grants. This alone shows the longevity of his program and argues strongly for continued productivity.

Prof. Thayumanavan’s research program is characterized by prolific excellence. Since promotion to Professor in 2008, Prof. Thayumanavan has published over 120 articles, with more than 30 in the top tier of chemistry journals as lead author. In the same time period, he has garnered more than $26 million in external support. He has given more than 100 presentations on his research since 2008, including keynote addresses and prestigious lectures such as the Nanqiang lecture in Xiamen University (2014), and he was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011.”

Capturing Waste Heat Energy with Improved Polymers

A team led by UMass chemist Dhandapani Venkataraman, “DV,” and electrical engineer Zlatan Aksamija, reported in Nature Communications on an advance they outline toward more efficient, cheaper, polymer-based harvest of heat energy. “It will be a surprise to the field,” DV predicts, “it gives us another key variable we can alter to improve the thermo-electric efficiency of polymers. This should make us, and others, look at polymer thermo-electrics in a new light.” Aksamija explains, “Using polymers to convert thermal energy to electricity by harvesting waste heat has seen an uptick in interest in recent years. Waste heat represents both a problem but also a resource; the more heat your process wastes, the less efficient it is.”

DV and his chemistry PhD student Connor Boyle, with Aksamija and his electrical engineering Ph.D. student Meenakshi Upadhyaya worked in what DV calls “a true collaboration,” where each insight from numerical simulations informed the next series of experiments, and vice versa. The team turned to chemist Michael Barnes, a co-author on their recent paper, who used Kelvin Probe Force Microscopy to probe the dopants at the nano level and show that clustering is indeed present in polymers doped at room temperature, but not at higher temperatures.

The findings should provide a new path for designing more efficient polymers for thermo-electric devices. DV notes that until now, chemists and materials scientists have been trying to organize polymers to be more like the inorganics, “nicely aligned and very regular, which is difficult to do,” he adds. “It turns out that this may not be the way to go; you can take another road or another approach. We hope this paper provides a basis to move polymer-based thermo-electrics forward.”

Trisha Andrew Developed Smart Pajamas to Gather Information While You Sleep

The American Chemical Society showcased the ‘Phyjama’ developed by Trisha L. Andrew, chemistry, and presented at the ACS Spring 2019 National Meeting & Exposition. The ‘smart’ pajamas include monitors to help track sleep patterns, and could be available to consumers within a few years.

"Our smart pajamas overcame numerous technical challenges," says Trisha L. Andrew, Ph.D., who led the team. "We had to inconspicuously integrate sensing elements and portable power sources into everyday garments, while maintaining the weight, feel, comfort, function and ruggedness of familiar clothes and fabrics. We also worked with computer scientists and electrical engineers to process the myriad signals coming from the sensors so that we had clear and easy-to-understand information." 

Getting enough quality sleep can help protect people against stress, infections and multiple diseases, such as heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health. Studies have found that quality sleep also increases mental acuity and sharpens decision-making skills. Yet most people do not get enough sleep — or the right kind. 

Vachet Receives CNS Outstanding Research Award

"Vachet’s interdisciplinary research program is at the interfaces of analytical, biological, and materials chemistry. He and his research group develop and apply new methods based on mass spectrometry to tackle biomedically important problems that are difficult to address with existing tools. His work has elucidated the molecular details associated with protein amyloid fibril formation, which is a special type of protein aggregation that occurs in numerous human diseases. His research has also led to the development of sensitive new methods to track nanomaterial drug delivery vehicles in biological systems, facilitating the creation of better therapeutics with fewer side effects." 

Award recipients are chosen by committees chaired by designees appointed by  Dean Tricia Serio, including past recipients. Dean Serio,  associate dean for research and innovation Mark Tuominen, and department representatives congratulated the winners, each speaking briefly about their experiences. 

Vicki Hubby Receives the CNS Outstanding Staff Award

"Vicki’s performance has been outstanding by any measure. She is considered the go-to person for many issues, including financial, compliance, and more. She is intelligent, efficient, always cheerful, and can be relied upon to solve any problem. She is indispensable and irreplaceable in that she almost single-handedly oversees all financial operations of our department, and is, in fact, the only person who fully understands them. "   Serio emphasized her gratitude to the award winners for their extraordinary work, presenting them as leaders for the college. “Their tremendous work continues to foster student achievement, demonstrate excellence, and build a more inclusive environment,” she said. “They are wonderful role models for us all.”  Friends, family, and colleagues gathered at a reception and awards ceremony May 14 for this year’s recipients of the CNS Outstanding Achievement Awards. The awards recognize faculty, staff and students who have made important contributions to their discipline, department, college and university.

Mahoney Seminar Thursday, Sept 19th, Prof. George M. Church

George M. Church, PhD ’84, is professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, a founding member of the Wyss Institute, and director of PersonalGenomes.org, the world’s only open-access information on human genomic, environmental, and trait data. Church is known for pioneering the fields of personal genomics and synthetic biology. He developed the first methods for the first genome sequence & dramatic cost reductions since then (down from $3 billion to $600), contributing to nearly all “next generation sequencing” methods and companies. His team invented CRISPR for human stem cell genome editing and other synthetic biology technologies and applications – including new ways to create organs for transplantation, gene therapies for aging reversal, and gene drives to eliminate Lyme Disease and Malaria. Church is director of IARPA & NIH BRAIN Projects and National Institutes of Health Center for Excellence in Genomic Science. He has coauthored 450 papers, 105 patents, and one book, “Regenesis”. His honors include Franklin Bower Laureate for Achievement in Science, the Time 100, and election to the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering.

His talk "Synthesis & Analysis of Biopolymers" will be held on Thursday, September 19th at 11:30 in LGRT 1634.

Abstract: We have improved technologies for reading and writing nucleic acid and proteins 10 million fold since 2001. We can design and test millions to trillions of engineered genomes, gene therapy capsids, and combinatorial protein mixtures. But this progress is not limited to linear polymers nor to biology, but enables analysis, synthesis, and high throughput functional testing of a variety of complex, yet atomically precise 3D structures including novel chiralities, high density data storage, nanopores etc.

Gierasch Elected to National Academy of Sciences

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences announced this week the election of 100 new members to the academy in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. They include Lila M. Gierasch, distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The NAS is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists are elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research. Gierasch’s research focus for decades has been protein folding, that is, how amino acid sequence determines the three-dimensional structure of a protein. She is particularly focused on how proteins fold in the cellular environment and the role of molecular chaperones in ensuring high fidelity in the folding process.

She says of her selection, “I am thrilled by this honor. The recognition of one’s contributions over a career by colleagues is truly gratifying.”

John McCarthy, UMass Amherst provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, says of Gierasch’s career accomplishments, “This is a richly deserved honor for one of our stellar faculty members. Lila Gierasch is part of what makes this university great.”

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars established by an Act of Congress signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The academy is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists are elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research.

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