ChemE Briefs

Welcome to ChemE Briefs, a place to find quick notes and posts from the faculty, students, staff and alumni of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia.


    NIH Awards Caliari Lab Research Project Grant for Approach to Treating Muscle Loss Injuries

    April 26, 2021
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    University of Virginia assistant professor Steven R. Caliari has received a Research Project Grant (R01) to address an understudied aspect of tissue engineering solutions for muscle loss due to traumatic injury. The award of more than $2 million from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases proposes an approach to integrating the connective and nervous tissues surrounding the injured muscle. The aim is to improve the functionality of the repaired tissues.

    The project, “Aligned and electrically conductive collagen scaffolds for guiding innervated muscle-tendon junction repair of volumetric muscle loss injuries,” will apply a 3D collagen scaffold that mimics the muscle fibers where they join tendons and other connective tissue, known as the musculotendinous junction (MTJ).

    Caliari is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering with a secondary appointment in biomedical engineering. He is collaborating on the project with George J. Christ, professor of biomedical engineering and orthopaedic surgery, and Shawn Russell, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery and mechanical and aerospace engineering. The work builds on previous research recently published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Biomaterials Science, led by Ivan Basurto, a Ph.D. candidate in Caliari’s lab, with third-year chemical engineering student Gregg Gardner, biomedical engineering alumnus Mark Mora and Christ.


    ChemE Shines at Annual UVA Engineering Graduate Student Research Symposium

    April 08, 2021

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    Chemical engineering cleaned up at this year’s UVA Engineering Research Symposium (UVERS), taking three of the top prizes. Naomi Miyake won first prize and the People’s Choice Award in the podium presentation competition, while Devanshi Gupta and Bev Miller won first and second respectively in the poster session. UVERS is the Graduate Engineering Student Council’s annual event to highlight the research achievements of the UVA Engineering graduate student body.

    Miyake is a student in Bob Davis’ catalysis lab, Gupta works with Gary Koenig’s research group on advanced materials for energy storage solutions and Miller is a student in Steven Caliari’s biomaterials lab.


    ChemE Undergrad Is an ACC and NCAA Champion Swimmer

    March 28, 2021
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    While adjusting to the rigors of her second year as a UVA Engineering student and first year in the chemical engineering program, Alexa “Lexi” Cuomo of Clifton, Virginia, also became an NCAA national champion as a member of the University of Virginia women’s swim and dive team.

    The Cavaliers ran away with the 2021 national title with 491 points, followed by N.C. State in second with 354 points and the University of Texas with 344.5. Virginia is the first Atlantic Coast Conference team to become NCAA women’s swimming and diving national champions.

    Cuomo collected four silver medals at the NCAA competition to help the Hoos to overall victory, with second-place finishes in the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays and the 200- and 400-yard medley relays. She also placed in the top eight in the 100-yard butterfly to earn First Team All-America honors in the event.

    Following the NCAA win, head coach Todd DeSorbo told UVA Today the 2021 team was on a mission all year, a sentiment echoed by Cuomo.

    “I’m so proud of how much our swim and dive team has accomplished, especially in this past year,” Cuomo said. “This win felt like a celebration of the effort we put in every day and the love and support we have for each other.”

    The Virginia women also won the ACC swimming and diving championship for the second year in a row.

    In the 2021 ACC championships, Cuomo and her teammates won the title in all four relay events, and in doing so, set an American record in the 200-yard medley with a time of 1:32.93. Individually, Cuomo won silver medals in the 100-yard butterfly and 50-yard freestyle in the ACC finals.

    In her UVA swimming career, Cuomo has also earned All-ACC honors and has been named to the All-ACC Academic Team and ACC Honor Roll. She has recorded some of UVA’s fastest times in the 100-yard butterfly, 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard freestyle.

    Cuomo comes from a family of engineers, with her mother and father in chemical and mechanical engineering respectively. Two sisters are civil engineers, one of whom is a UVA alumna. She gravitated to chemical engineering because there are many paths you can take with the degree.

    “I wanted a major that will help me become a problem-solver for the big challenges in our world today, especially climate change,” Cuomo said. “It has definitely been a challenge, but having a smaller community in our department makes me feel like I’m part of a team during the hard classes as well.”

    Teamwork and good time management are getting her through her toughest semester yet, she said, but motivation isn’t hard to come by.

    “What keeps me going is probably the fact that I want to make a positive impact after college in a way that feels important to me, and I never want to intentionally limit myself based on the fear that I can’t do something, either academically or athletically.”

    Buoyed by such a memorable and successful swimming season, Cuomo now is looking forward to the summer, when she plans to join assistant professor Rachel Letteri’s biomaterials lab for undergraduate research. She will work with Ph.D. student Mara Kuenen.

    There is one more thing on her swimming to-do list, though.

    “I am planning on swimming in the U.S. Olympic Trials in June. I’ve qualified for the 100 fly and 50 free,” Cuomo said.

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    400-yard medley relay team members Kate Douglass (clockwise from top left), Cuomo, Alexis Wenger and Reilly Tiltmann on the podium after their second-place finish in the NCAA championship finals.


    Noted Catalysis Expert and Former Chemical Engineering Chair Bob Davis Named AIChE Fellow

    March 26, 2021
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    Robert J. Davis, William Mynn Thornton Professor of Chemical Engineering, has been elected as a fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the institute’s highest grade of membership.

    Fellows are selected by a committee and approved by the AIChE board of directors. The honor affirms the high esteem with which colleagues and peers view the candidate’s professional achievements and accomplishments. New fellows may be recognized at the 2021 Virtual Spring Meeting in April or the 2021 Annual Meeting in Boston in November.

    Davis, who chaired the University of Virginia Department of Chemical Engineering from 2002 to 2011, is well known for his work in catalysis and reaction engineering. He has received numerous research and teaching awards, including the Wilhelm Award of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and has a distinguished record of service and scholarship in his areas of expertise.


    NMCF makes the move into Research Phase II, allowing enhanced instrument access

    February 01, 2021

    The NMCF COVID Safety Plan for Research has been upgraded to Phase II occupancy levels.

    This allows increased access to NMCF instrumentation for students, faculty, and researchers.

    Several instrument spaces now allow double occupancy, with continued face covering use and maintainance of 6-ft spacing. Rooms that now allow double occupancy include spaces for: XRD, XCT, XRF, LV200 SEM, Hirox optical microscopy, sample preparation, sample cutting and polishing, Helios SEM / FIB, Zygo, and several post-processing rooms.

    More information about UVa's Phase II density levels can be found on the VPR's "Research Ramp Up Guidance" Webpage. Phase II allows select graduate students and experienced undergraduates* to return to the laboratory based on school prioritization to the essential nature of the work.

    * “Experienced Undergraduates” are students that have worked in a researcher’s lab for at least two months pre-COVID.


    Professor Carta Honored with AIChE Plenary Sessions

    November 30, 2020
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    The American Institute of Chemical Engineers honored Giorgio Carta, the Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia with two plenary sessions on Nov. 17 at its 2020 meeting. The sessions in Adsorption and Ion Exchange Area 2e recognize Carta’s important research contributions in the field and his dedicated service to AIChE.

    Carta has been a member of the Area 2e Committee since 1986, and served as area vice chair and then area chair between 2004 and 2007. Area 2e is responsible for organizing 10 to 20 technical sessions on adsorption and ion exchange topics each year at the AIChE Annual meeting and for promoting adsorption science and technology, Carta said.

    As an Area 2e committee member, Carta has served as session chair or co-chair in more than 20 technical sessions. Area 2e is closely connected with the International Adsorption Society, where Carta also served as a board member between 2007 and 2013.


    UVA Chemical Engineering and School of Medicine Researchers Try Different Tack on Cancer Suicide Gene Therapy

    October 15, 2020
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    University of Virginia associate professor of chemical engineering Matthew Lazzara and Benjamin Purow, a professor and neurologist at the UVA School of Medicine, recently received an exploratory research grant from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health for collaborative research.

    The $415,245 award is a multiple principal investigator grant, a category of funding for projects requiring a team science approach. UVA Engineering’s proximity to a world-class medical school and health system facilitates collaborative efforts with clinicians and researchers at UVA and partner institutions.

    The project is titled “Engineering ERK-specificity for cancer suicide gene therapy.” Preliminary data for the proposal was based upon the doctoral thesis work of recent Lazzara lab graduate Evan Day.

    “Suicide gene therapy is an approach to trick cancer cells into killing themselves. The suicide gene product converts an otherwise innocuous prodrug into a toxic substance,” Lazzara said.

    The technique has been tried before and even undergone clinical trials, but the UVA team is onto something new.

    “We designed a way to promote the expression of these suicide genes in cancer cells exhibiting high activity of the ERK pathway, which is a frequent driver of resistance to therapy across many types of cancers,” Lazzara said.

    ERK, short for “extracellular signal-regulated kinase,” is a highly studied signaling protein involved in communicating information from receptors on the cell’s surface to the cell nucleus, where it regulates the transcription of numerous genes. It’s a biochemical pathway that cells use to regulate their proliferation and survival — and cancer cells frequently find ways to activate this pathway as a way to survive treatment.

    “Our approach could be a way to develop more selective and effective suicide gene therapies that will have preferential effects on cancer cells rather than normal tissue. The design also turns a common escape mechanism from therapy — the cell’s ability to turn up ERK signaling — into a lethal vulnerability. In other words, it takes a biochemical escape route that cancer cells like to use and turns that against the cancer cell,” Lazzara said.

    Lazzara, who holds a courtesy appointment in biomedical engineering and is a member of the UVA Cancer Center, is a noted researcher in the areas of cell-signaling and cellular decision-making. Purow is a clinician-scientist whose clinical practice focuses on neuro-oncology and whose research is focused on improved therapeutic approaches for brain cancer.


    New Grant Funds Studies on Innovative Additive Manufacturing Process

    September 21, 2020

    University of Virginia associate professor of chemical engineering Geoff Geise has received a National Science Foundation collaborative research grant that could lead to new materials manufacturing processes with the potential to address clean water shortages.

    Geise’s team is using the $325,654 grant to fund multiple investigative strategies and disciplinary approaches including advanced manufacturing, materials science, chemical engineering and electrochemistry to better understand an additive manufacturing technique called electrospray. Electrospray applies high voltage to a liquid to form an aerosol spray that can be precisely controlled.

    The process is similar to 3-D printing — the most familiar example of additive manufacturing — except that the building materials are individual molecules deposited on a surface to form a thin film or membrane with characteristics designed for specific purposes. This adaptability offers significant advantages over conventional processes for manufacturing film coatings, the researchers say. Conventional methods cannot reliably produce very thin ion exchange membranes with tunable properties that can be achieved with electrospray.

    “One benefit of this approach would be that manufacturers could quickly adapt the process to make tailored water treatment membranes in response to emerging contaminants or pollutants in water,” the team wrote in the National Science Foundation grant abstract. “Results from this research benefit the U.S. economy and society by enabling the manufacture of very efficient membranes that provide better access to clean water.”

    Geise's lab is collaborating on the research with a team led by Al Geib Professor of Environmental Engineering Research and Education Jeff McCutcheon at the University of Connecticut School of Engineering.

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    Ph.D. student Saringi Agata is one of the researchers working on the electrospray project.


    Grant Teams UVA ChE Lab with ODU Researchers to Investigate Quantum Dots

    August 19, 2020
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    Associate professor of chemical engineering Joshua Choi recently received a National Science Foundation research grant titled “Collaborative Research: Nanoscale Charge Transfer in Quantum Dots Connected with Molecular Switches.” The project is a collaboration with Guijun Wang’s research group at Old Dominion University. Wang is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

    The research team will study differences in how electrons move between quantum dots (semiconductor nanoparticles with tunable optical and electrical properties) when the shape of molecules bridging the quantum dots changes. This research has a potential to advance the fundamental understanding of optical and electrical processes in nanoscale materials with broad implications for improving computing and memory devices that serve a range of needs.

    The Choi group’s collaboration with Wang and her researchers was seeded by a 4-VA grant that made it possible for the team to generate key preliminary results. 4-VA is a partnership among eight Virginia universities formed around four research and educational initiatives.

    The research activities covered by the $310,420 National Science Foundation grant also integrate educational efforts to improve recruitment, training and retention of students in science and engineering fields, especially among underrepresented groups at the University of Virginia and Old Dominion University.


    Team Manifold Conducts Virtual Research

    August 11, 2020

    This year’s team is the 14th Virginia iGEM team to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, the Giant Jamboree, following a legacy of successful teams and their inventive synthetic biology solutions. Under the guidance of our advisors, Professor Papin and Professor Kozminski (Biomedical Engineering and Biology Departments, respectively), Virginia iGEM has consistently received recognition at the competition, as well as seeding biotech startups Agrospheres INC and Transfoam LLC. Along with a strong reputation to live up to, the 2020 Team has been incredibly resilient in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.