Mechanical engineering professor receives $ 1.8 million NSF grant

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Megan Valentine, professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, received a $ 1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation as part of the “Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future” program. The goal of the project, made possible by a grant awarded to Valentine and her team of four other scientists, is to create a design framework to accelerate the design, manufacture and use of autonomous biotic-abiotic biomaterials.

Courtesy of Megan Valentine

“I have had informal interactions with our team members for years and we have been thinking about how to combine our collective expertise to create new classes of materials capable of performing complex tasks, like crawling and lifting,” Valentine said. “I am very excited to continue this work, which I believe will lead to new fundamental knowledge about how living materials perform complex tasks, while enabling new applications in healthcare and science. robotic. “

The team consists of five academic researchers from UCSB, University of Chicago, Syracuse University, Rochester Institute of Technology, and University of San Diego. Of the five members, four are women, including Valentine.

“I hope that with this award, we can both increase the visibility of women in scientific and technical disciplines and reduce barriers for anyone who wants to work with next-generation biomaterials,” said Valentine.

According to Valentine, the team’s work builds on a number of previous successes in their lab involving protein and polymer materials. Their project aims to create biotic-abiotic devices that harness bacterial cells and protein-based motors to power hydrogel actuators. According to Materials today on ScienceDirect Magazine, hydrogel actuators are 3D polymer networks filled with water. The water level in these networks changes depending on external stimuli, such as temperature and light exposure, and aims to mimic how plants are able to move and twist by varying the amount. of water in cells and tissues.

“Living organisms and tissues can do amazing things – move, respond to stimuli, adapt and heal,” said Valentine. “In contrast, most man-made materials are fairly straightforward and are usually optimized for a single task. Through this project, we will develop methods to incorporate living cells into hydrogels to capture the adaptive and multifunctional properties of living materials in robust engineering materials.

Valentine said it could have wide uses in healthcare, packaging, and robotics. To approach this project, the main methods that will be used at UC Santa Barbara[[UCSB]]are in particular high resolution microscopy, 3D printing, cell culture and micromechanical testing of bio-hydrogel materials. Valentine’s main role in the project is to lead hydrogel design work and the development of methods for the mechanical characterization of device prototypes.

“It involves understanding how the hydrogel will react to stretching, how it will interact with cells and proteins, and how we can optimize the coupling between biological and artificial elements to improve the ability of materials and devices to change. form, lift and move. “said Valentin.

According to Valentine, the team’s collective expertise ranges from genetics and molecular biology to protein biophysics and materials science to advanced modeling and instrument development.

“By bringing together experts in theory, computation, bioactive manufacturing, experimental characterization, and design, we can address larger scientific questions that no one member could answer alone,” said Valentine. “I look forward to collaborating with a team of experts to establish cutting edge materials in biomaterials science and synthetic biology and look forward to seeing what new creative solutions and synergies emerge. “

When Valentine received a Fulbright Scholar Award to collaborate with the City of Paris Higher Education Institution for Industrial Physics and Chemistry in 2015, she said that the importance of female science teachers and female STEM teachers in the he higher education that can serve as role models and mentors was often emphasized. Emphasis was also placed on the importance of encouraging students to have hands-on experiences, such as building equipment, exploring robotics, and coding.

So team-led science, said Valentine, and a research atmosphere that fosters and rewards open exchange, creativity, risk-taking and cooperation to push the boundaries of scientific discovery are what she works hard to create. She plans to recruit and mentor students who will obtain hands-on training in cutting-edge biomaterials research.

“The grant will provide students with training opportunities on how to incorporate circuits and biological elements into design materials, and then deploy those materials into useful devices that can move, grip, and lift,” said declared Valentine. “This type of interdisciplinary training will help the students and post-docs working on the project to become the next generation of leaders in engineering and materials science. “


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