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.


    UVA ChemE Professor’s Agricultural Biotech Start-Up Reaps Competitive Grant from Virginia Catalyst

    January 13, 2020

    Lytos Technologies, an early-stage start-up company co-founded by chemical engineering associate professor Bryan Berger, and its UVA and Virginia Tech partners, have received a $500,000 grant from Virginia Catalyst to continue work on safe, effective alternatives to chemical pesticides for agricultural applications.

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    Virginia Catalyst is a non-profit corporation funded by the Virginia General Assembly and several of the state’s leading public universities, including the University of Virginia. Its competitive Grant Funding Program supports collaborative life- and bioscience research and commercialization of new innovations with the potential to address large, unmet needs for improving human health; create high-value jobs in Virginia; and strengthen the state’s competitive advantage in life science technologies, according to a news release from the Office of the Governor.

    The project Lytos is working on with its university partners, “Design and implementation of green, enzymatic biofungicides for pre- and post-harvest crop protection,” is one of six collaborations to win a grant in the organization’s 10th and latest round of funding. This round’s grants total $3.3 million.

    Berger co-founded Lytos with his former student, Evan Eckersley, at UVA. The award will support their ongoing efforts to develop and commercialize effective “green” biocides as well as targeted applications for pre- and post-harvest crop protection. Lytos works with Virginia wine grape growers, Berger said, to find organic biopesticides that outperform traditional chemicals.

    “In working directly with local wineries, we will be able to deliver products that will contribute to the growing sustainable, organic wine movement,” he said.


    ChemE Professor Celebrates With Former Colleagues Being Honored for ‘Doing a World of Good’

    December 23, 2019

    University of Virginia Chemical Engineering Professor of Practice Michael L. King was honored to be invited to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ “Doing a World of Good” gala in New York City in December. At the gala, the institute recognized Merck & Co. and the company’s chief executive officer, Ken Frazier, with a Doing a World of Good award. King worked at Merck for 32 years, retiring as senior vice president science and technology, before joining UVA’s chemical engineering faculty.

    “It was a wonderful event and noted the many contributions that chemical engineers have made at Merck in the development and commercialization of important drugs and vaccines,” King said.

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    Pictured from left: Michael Thien, Merck senior vice president; Ken Frazier, Merck CEO; and Michael L. King, UVA chemical engineering professor of practice.


    Graduate Student From Lazzara Lab Wins Presentation Award

    October 23, 2019
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    Evan Day, a student in Associate Professor Matt Lazzara’s lab, is the 2019 winner of the W.H. Peterson Oral Presentation Award given by the Division of Biochemical Technology of the American Chemical Society. The award is for his presentation on work that led to the creation of a new tool to evaluate the in vivo (taking place in a living organism) efficacy of targeted inhibitors for cancer. Evan presented the research, titled “Engineering a bioluminescence-based protein kinase reporter for in vivo, longitudinal studies of receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitor response,” at the division’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., last spring. The award will be presented at the American Chemical Society Biochemical Technology Division 2020 annual meeting, which will be held in March in Philadelphia.

    “The deployment of this tool will lead to better preclinical in vivo data, and greatly reduce the numbers of animals needed to evaluate drug efficacy, at least for a particular class of drugs,” Professor Lazzara said. “The basic design principle behind it may eventually be adapted for use with other types of drugs.”


    Ph.D. Student Lands National Science Foundation INTERN Funding for Research at Merck

    October 23, 2019
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    Nate Sallada, a Ph.D. student in Associate Professor Bryan Berger’s lab, recently received a National Science Foundation Non-Academic Research Internships for Graduate Students INTERN award. INTERN opportunities provide supplemental funding for students already supported by an active National Science Foundation grant, allowing them to pursue activities and training that complements their academic research experience.

    The funding will support collaborative work with researchers at Merck & Co., which follows up on previous work with the pharmaceutical company that is pending publication. The research involves developing new, protein-based formulating agents to improve drug delivery for the treatment of diseases. Nate will work at Merck in winter and spring of 2020 with Matthew Lamm, director of preformulation at Merck, to further investigate the mechanism of improved drug delivery using the designed proteins developed at UVA.


    Professor Lazzara Awarded NIH Cancer Systems Biology Grant

    August 30, 2019
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    Associate Professor Matt Lazzara was awarded a new five-year U01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to apply systems biology methods for the rational design of combination therapy for pancreatic cancer. The award was made through the institute’s funding opportunity for Emerging Questions in Cancer Systems Biology and establishes the Lazzara Lab as a member of the NCI Cancer Systems Biology Consortium. Lazzara and his team will collaborate with investigators at the UVA School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and University of Delaware on the project.


    Geise Research Group Paper is Editors’ Choice

    August 29, 2019

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    The Geise Research Group recently published a paper that was selected as an American Chemical Society Editors’ Choice article. The research features the work of graduate students Hongxi Luo (back row, second from left) and Kevin Chang (back row, far left) along with undergraduate Kevin Bahati (front row, far right), who is an Undergraduate Student Opportunities in Academic Research (USOAR) researcher. The paper, titled “Engineering Selective Desalination Membranes via Molecular Control of Polymer Functional Groups” describes a strategy for increasing the effectiveness of water desalination by improving membrane selectivity. The approach is based on controlling chemical functional group position within the polymer that is used to make the desalination membrane. Also pictured above are graduate students Saringi Agata (back row, right), YuanYuan Ji (front row, second from left) and Patrick McCormack (front row, second from right), and Prof. Geoff Geise (front row, far left).


    Chemical and Biomedical Engineering Students’ Summer Work Aims to Prevent Spread of Infection

    August 22, 2019
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    This summer, rising third-year chemical engineering major Molly Caveney (right) and Allie Boboltz, a biomedical engineering major, worked on using engineered proteins to break down biofilms and prevent the spread of infection, with chemical engineering associate professor Bryan Berger.

    “The benefit of engineered proteins is that they are both effective in breaking down biofilms and organically derived, meaning that they won’t contribute to antimicrobial resistance,” Allie said. “We have been working this summer to isolate, express and purify proteins in E. Coli bacteria that could potentially be used against biofilms. This involves cloning my gene of interest into a bacterial plasmid, then using the plasmid to over-express my target protein in E. Coli. My next step is to apply these proteins to biofilms and observe the protein’s activity on the biofilm.”

    When they were not in the lab, Molly and Allie went on ice cream tours throughout the Charlottesville area.


    ChemE Undergrad Kevin Bahati Named American Chemical Society Scholar

    August 22, 2019

    Kevin Bahati, a fourth-year chemical engineering major and undergraduate research assistant in Assistant Professor Geoff Geise’s lab, has been named an American Chemical Society Scholar. Kevin, who spent the summer working as a facilities engineering intern at Southwestern Energy in Texas, joined Professor Geise’s lab as a first-year student because of the group’s polymer-based water purification research.

    Kevin was raised in Africa and lived in Congo, Zambia and Uganda before immigrating to the United States through a refugee program in 2014. He has experienced first-hand living without reliable access to clean water. It is motivation to use his education and research background to make contributions that will help improve living conditions in the developing world.

    “My end goal is not just about providing clean water,” he said. “I want to contribute to the progress taking place in the developing world.”

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    ChemE Undergraduates Spend Summer Combating Harmful Algal Blooms

    August 14, 2019
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    Rising third-year chemical engineering majors David Lee of Yorktown, Va., and Geoffrey Burns of Concord, Mass., spent the summer at UVA Engineering in the lab with Associate Professor Bryan Berger working on finding a more effective and environmentally friendly way to treat harmful algal blooms.

    “The most common treatment is copper sulfate, which is super toxic and essentially kills the algae and everything else living in the lake or other body of water,” Geoffrey said. “So we developed an enzyme that works to specifically target the algae and kill it without harming the other organisms in water.

    “We’ve spent this summer researching the effects of the enzyme on different types of algae and finding ways to increase the enzyme’s buoyancy so that it can better target the algae that grow mainly on a body of water’s surface.”

    When they were not doing research, their activities included picking peaches at Carter Mountain with friends.


    International Team Collaboration Results in Study Published in Journal of the American Chemical Society

    August 12, 2019
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    Rising fourth-year chemical engineering Ph.D. student Hongxi Luo and his advisor, Assistant Professor Geoffrey Geise, co-authored a study, “Assembling a natural small molecule into a supramolecular network with high structural order and dynamic functions,” that recently was accepted for publication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Luo and Geise collaborated on the research with 2016 Nobel laureate in chemistry Ben Feringa of the University of Groningen and Da-Hui Qu of East China University of Science and Technology.

    “The article reports an approach to assembling a small, relatively simple bio-based molecule into a more ordered polymeric structure that could be functionally interesting for a range of applications,” Geise said. “This assembly is facilitated by interactions between the molecules, and we can use water to adjust those interactions. Hongxi and I contributed to the work by making measurements to help determine how water interacts with the material.”

    Geise added that water also can be used to promote self-healing in the materials, which makes them interesting as recyclable materials.