The Connecticut Invention Convention (CIC), an internationally recognized educational organization started in 1983, provides curriculum for use by Connecticut K-12 teachers to develop creative problem-solving and critical thinking skills through invention and entrepreneurship. CIC curriculum is standards-based and enables students to research, analyze and effectively focus on and solve their real-life problems.
Each year, the work of both teachers and students culminates in a final competitition where students are recognized with awards and prizes for their hard work on the inventions they create.
A long-time sponsor of Connecticut Invention Convention, the UConn Institute of Materials Science established the Most Innovative Use of Materials Award in 2021. We are happy to congratulate the 2022 winner, fifth grader Alexis Werkhoven, for her Merry Berries invention. We extend our congratulations to all the prize winners and to every participant.
The IMS Polymer Program Awards committee has selected two awardees for the 2021 – 2022 academic year.
Chung-Hao Liu received the Samuel J. Huang Graduate Student Research Award. This award recognizes a graduate student for outstanding research in the field of polymer science and engineering. Chung-Hao completed is fourth year as a polymer PhD candidate under the guidance of Prof. Mu-Ping Nieh. He has been diligent in conducting advanced nanoscience research including materials characterization and designing polymer nanostructures. His efforts have resulted in two published journal articles, one currently in review, and contributions to many more. Chung-Hao has also made many collaborating efforts with other research groups and mentored undergraduate engineering students. Outside the lab, Chung-Hao has been an Society of Polymer Engineers, Storrs Chapter, committee member for 3 years, serving as both Vice President and President. His positive attitude and strong work ethics have made contributions to Prof. Nieh’s lab and the IMS research community.
Probodha Abeykoon has been recognized as this year’s Stephanie H. Shaw Fellowship Scholar. This award is designated for a female student showing academic achievement and contributions outside of research. Probodha has served as the leader of the Adamson Research Lab and has taken it upon herself to be the resident expert in several analytical techniques, such as four-point probe and thermal conductivity. She has two published papers and a third manuscript recently submitted. She has also presented her work at several ACS National Meetings. During the past 4 years Probodha has grown in into an excellent scientist and group leader.
The polymer program congratulates this year’s awardees with their tremendous efforts in both research and leadership in the IMS community.
In recent years, from H1N1 and now to SARS-CoV-2, global pandemics caused by highly contagious viral species have been threatening human life and putting tremendous pressure on healthcare services as well as the economy. Rapid testing and timely interventions for asymptomatic or mild infections caused by SARS-CoV-2, for example, would enable efficient quarantine of infected patients, thus significantly reducing the spread rate of the virus. Importantly, SARS-CoV-2 is expected to continue in the future fall/winter seasons, when it will coincide with the seasonal outbreak of other infectious respiratory diseases, including those caused by influenza virus and respiratory syncytial virus, which have similar signs and symptoms in the early stages. Considering the overlap in the seasonal peaks, symptoms, and underlying risk factors of these illnesses, having a rapid test to detect and differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from other infectious respiratory viruses will be clinically important.
In response to this clinical need, the Institute of Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Yi Zhang led the development of the most sensitive amplification-free SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic platform, the CRISPR Cas13a graphene field-effect transistor. This study, entitled “Amplification-Free Detection of SARS-CoV-2 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus Using CRISPR Cas13a and Graphene Field-Effect Transistors,” was published online on May 12, 2022, in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.
“The key features of viral diagnostics are rapidness and sensitivity,” said Zhang. According to Zhang, most virus detection techniques, including the gold-standard RT-PCR, relies on viral sequence amplification, which can dramatically complicate the detection process and increase the risk of cross-contamination, therefore subject to elevated false-positive rates. However, current amplification-free methods are still limited by compromised sensitivity. “Our work revolutionized the field of amplification-free nucleic acid diagnostics by introducing a biosensing platform with sensitivity comparable with RT-PCR,” he said.
Derived from adaptive immunity in prokaryotes, Nobel-winning clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated (Cas) technology leverages nucleic acid base pair complementarity between a guide RNA and targeted nucleic acid sequence and affords high target specificity capable of discriminating single mismatches. Recently, several CRISPR/Cas systems, including Cas13a, were found to perform cleavage of nonspecific bystander nucleic acid probes triggered by target detection, known as “collateral cleavage.” Such collateral cleavage demonstrates a multi-turnover behavior, turning a single target recognition event into multiple probe cleavage events, and therefore leads to signal amplification.
“The idea of our biosensor design originates from exploiting the signal amplification by translating CRISPR technology onto an ultrasensitive detection platform,” said Huijie Li, a Ph.D. student in Zhang’s lab; she is also the leading first author of the study. Graphene, as a two-dimensional material, exhibits extraordinary charge carrier mobility and thus high electrical conductivity. Thanks to its atomic thickness, graphene, when constructed into biosensors as a sensing material, is highly sensitive to the interaction with biological analytes. In this study, by immobilizing probes on graphene-based field-effect transistors and allowing Cas13a collateral cleavage of these probes activated by target detection, SARS-CoV-2 down to 1 aM level in both spiked and clinical samples, was successfully detected within a 30 min detection time.
Simply by changing the guide RNA design, CRISPR Cas13a graphene field-effect transistor platform was reconfigured to target respiratory syncytial virus with the same attomolar sensitivity. “As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, our virus diagnostic tool can be easily adapted to combat the future outbreak of unknown viral species,” Guangfu Wu, a Postdoc in Zhang’s lab; he is the co-first author of this work, said.
This study marks a significant milestone towards our goal of developing an integrated point-of-care biosensing platform for viral diagnostics. “We are aiming to offer patients a fast, ultrasensitive all-in-one tool that can streamline sample treatment and analysis and deliver results without any specialized training,” said Zhengyan Weng, a Ph.D. student in Zhang’s lab; he is also the co-first author of this study.
This research is supported by the University of Connecticut start-up and the National Science Foundation under the award number CBET-2103025. The collaborators of this work include Dr. Xue Gao at Rice University (co-corresponding author), Drs. Kevin D. Dieckhaus and Lori Avery at UConn Health, and Dr. Yupeng Chen in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UConn.
Professor Yao Lin has been awarded a five-year NSF grant (DMR #2210590, $719,664), for his research project, “Advancing Processability and Material Performance of Synthetic Polyamino Acids with Transformable Secondary Structures.”
Dynamic transition from helices to sheets in fibrous proteins facilitates a remarkable increase in the strength, stiffness, and energy dissipation capacity. Polyamino acids (PAAs), also known as synthetic polypeptides, can adopt analogous secondary structures. However, inducing the structural transitions in the solid PAA of high molecular weights (MWs) is a largely unmet challenge. As a result, many of the PAA materials either have poor thermomechanical properties or are incompatible with polymer processing techniques such as extrusion and compression molding. This project aims to develop a general strategy to significantly improve the thermomechanical properties and processability of synthetic PAAs by taking advantage of metastable, transformable structures of PAAs and control over their in-situ transition and hierarchical organization.
The findings from this project may enable the generation of polymeric systems that will approach the level of sophistication and versatility found in some of nature’s biomaterials. The research also provides a model system of synthetic polymers with intrinsic secondary structures in which the different partitioning of intramolecular and intermolecular networks determines the macroscopic properties of materials, enabling comparison of the experimental results with predictions from simulations and modeling.
Graduate and undergraduate students will be trained on bioinspired polymeric materials and acquire skills in polymer synthesis, material characterization, mechanics, and computer simulations.
The Office of the Provost recently announced the award of promotion and/or tenure to 69 faculty across the Storrs and regional campuses. Seven IMS faculty members were among them.
Evaluations for promotion, tenure, and reappointment apply the highest standards of professional achievement in scholarship, teaching, and service for each faculty member evaluated. Applications for promotion and tenure are reviewed at the department level, school or college level, and finally at the Office of the Provost before recommendations are forwarded to the Board of Trustees.
The Scholarship Facilitation Fund program provides up to $2,000 to UConn faculty across all disciplines. The OVPR offers the competitive awards to promote, support, and enhance research, scholarship, and creative endeavors across UConn Storrs and regional campuses.
Four IMS faculty members were among the 67 faculty named as recipient of the award for Spring 2022:
Elyse Schriber, a second-year materials science graduate student in the lab of assistant professor of chemistry J. Nathan “Nate” Hohman, was named among five UConn students to receive the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP).
Elyse began working with Hohman as an undergraduate research assistant in 2017, when he was a staff scientist at the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab before coming to UConn.
She started working on method development for serial femtosecond chemical crystallography (SFCX) at an X-ray free electron laser (XFEL) facility in 2018. This is an X-ray crystallography technique that determines single crystal structures of materials from microcrystalline powders. She continues that work at UConn currently. The duo recently published their first paper on the method in Nature.
She plans to continue to work on different facets of the SFCX project in her graduate program, including studying ultrafast nonequilibrium excited state structural dynamics in materials.
“I started my undergraduate degree as a nontraditional student at the local community college and as a result, did not have a straightforward pathway into graduate school or academia,” says Schriber. “Being awarded the GRFP, especially with my background, makes me hopeful that more students with similar experiences can be empowered to believe that they can be successful, regardless of how they got their start.” Read the full UConn Today Story
Nate Hohman is the feature of the Materials Research Society (MRS) podcast, MRS Bulletin. Laura Leay interviews Hohman about the structure of two chalcogenolates his group uncovered. By combining serial femtosecond crystallography —usually used to characterize large molecules—and a clique algorithm, Hohman’s group was able to analyze the structure of small molecules. With serial femtosecond crystallography, large molecules like proteins produce thousands of spots on the detector; in contrast, small molecule crystals only a produce a few spots. The algorithm uses the pattern that the spots make on the detector to determine the orientation of as many crystals in the liquid jet as possible. The data from each crystal can then be merged together to find the structure. Nate’s research is featured in the 2022 IMS Annual Newsletter.