Faculty

Cato Laurencin Honored by American Orthopaedic Association

from UConn Today

Dr. Cato Laurencin
Dr. Cato T. Laurencin is now added to the AOA Award Hall of Fame (AOA Photo/Kyle Klein).

Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, University Professor at the University of Connecticut, has been honored by the American Orthopaedic Association (AOA) with its Distinguished Contributions to Orthopaedics Award adding him to its AOA Award Hall of Fame.

Laurencin, the Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at UConn School of Medicine, was selected for the special recognition by his AOA member peers for his remarkable personal achievement and contributions to orthopaedic surgery.

He accepted the award the evening of June 15 at the AOA’s Annual Leadership Meeting at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. “I am so honored to accept the American Orthopaedic Association Distinguished Contributions to Orthopaedics Award and be recognized in the AOA Awards Hall of Fame. I feel so fortunate to be an orthopaedic surgeon.”

The AOA Distinguished Contributions to Orthopaedics (DCO) Award recognizes Laurencin for his personal achievement and broad contribution to the orthopaedic specialty, leadership, impact on patient care, and clinical and basic science research. The mission of the AOA is engaging the orthopaedic community to develop leaders, strategies and resources to guide the future of musculoskeletal care.

In addition to being a practicing sports medicine and shoulder surgeon consistently named to America’s Top Doctors list, Laurencin is a world-renowned surgeon-engineer-scientist and a pioneer of the field of regenerative engineering.

In fact, Laurencin is leading the first international effort ever for knee and limb engineering with his Hartford Engineering a Limb (HEAL) project which aims at regenerating a human limb by 2030. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation currently fund this research work through Laurencin’s large grant awards including the NIH Director’s Pioneer Grant Award and the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Grant Award.

In orthopaedic surgery, Laurencin has been the first to win the “trifecta” of orthopaedic research lifetime awards: the Nicolas Andry Award from the Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons, the Marshall R. Urist Award from the Orthopaedic Research Society, and the Kappa Delta Award from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Nationally, Laurencin is the first surgeon in history to be elected to all four national academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Inventors. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Laurencin is a laureate of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, America’s highest honor for technological achievement, awarded by President Barack Obama at the White House. He is the recipient of the prestigious Spingarn Medal, the highest honor of the NAACP bestowed upon such Americans as Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Ellington.

At UConn Laurencin is also a professor of chemical engineering, materials science and engineering, and biomedical engineering and serves as CEO of The Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering. He has received the highest honors in engineering, medicine and science, including the Philip Hauge Abelson Prize given for “signal contributions to the advancement of science in the United States.”  The American Institute of Chemical Engineers recently established the Cato T. Laurencin Regenerative Engineering Founder’s Award in honor of his breakthrough achievements in that field.

Laurencin received his BSE in chemical engineering from Princeton University, his MD, magna cum laude from the Harvard Medical School, and his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering/biotechnology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Anna Tarakanova is Studying Elastins to Develop Aging-Related Therapies

from UConn Today

Dr. Anna Tarakanova
Mechanical engineering professor Anna Tarakanova listens during the 2020 Women in STEM Frontiers in Research Expo, which she co-organized. (Contributed photo)

Anna Tarakanova has long had an interest in how objects and bodies work. Her chosen specialty in the field of Mechanical Engineering – studying the structure, function, and mechanics of biological systems and materials, especially fibrous protein materials such as elastin and collagen – merges the two.

The assistant professor of mechanical engineering and her team are working to establish a high-fidelity modeling framework for both healthy and degenerated elastins for use as a tool to resolve different pathological stressors affecting how elastin functions from a nanoscale.

During aging and with chronic, often age-related illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoarthritis, elastin can degenerate, causing a decline in normal function. Elastin is an essential structural protein that gives the skin, heart, blood vessels, and other elastic tissues in the body the stretchy quality they need to function.

“At the molecular scale, there are a number of physical-chemical modifications that occur that drive this mechanical degeneration over time,” Tarakanova says. “Because they are quite numerous and act in parallel, it’s difficult to deconstruct which triggers impact mechanics and to what degree. If we can understand the mechanism, we can think about novel therapies to target aging and aging-associated diseases.”

Tarakanova’s work has earned her a 2022 Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation. She is one of 11 junior faculty members at UConn this year to receive the coveted award, which recognizes the recipient’s potential as a role model in education and research.

CAREER Awards come with five years of funding intended to provide a foundation for a young professor’s research program. Beyond advancing her research, Tarakanova plans to use the funding to create activities and events to engage and support undergraduate and graduate students, especially those from underrepresented groups. The effort will include a reboot of a Women In STEM Frontiers in Research Expo she co-organized with a colleague in January 2020.

“For me, it was kind of a natural extension of what I wanted to do as a professor, being a woman in STEM and being a minority for most of my education career,” Tarakanova says.

Elastin and collagen are not the only protein materials getting her attention. Early in the pandemic, Tarakanova and two of her graduate students began exploring the spike protein associated with SARS-CoV-2 to figure out how it moved when it interacted with the immune system. She is now working with Paulo Verardi, a pathobiologist in UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, and UConn biochemist Simon White to develop new and potentially better ways to stabilize spike proteins for use in COVID-19 vaccines, particularly in relation to emerging new variants of the virus.

“Some of the methods we are using to study the spike protein are related to the methods that we’ve used and continue to use to look at elastin,” she says. “It’s a different project, but it does broadly fall under this fusing of computing and computational models, physics, biomechanics, and biochemistry to understand the dynamic behavior of the COVID spike protein, the protein that sits on part of the corona.”

Rapid Virus Test Being Studied in Zhang Group will Differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from Other Respiratory Viruses

Yi Zhang Group
(from left to right) Guangfu Wu, Huijie Li, and Zhengyan Weng, advised by Professor Yi Zhang, are checking an array of graphene field-effect transistors.

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.

Yi Zhang
Dr. Yi Zhang

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.

Seven IMS Faculty Members Promoted

Faculty Promotions 2022
(l-r) Drs. Yupeng Chen, Elena Dormidontova, Ali Gokirmak, Ying Li, Xiuling Lu, Thanh Nguyen, Arash Zaghi

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.

Newly promoted IMS faculty members include:

From the School of Engineering

Promotion to Associate Professor and Tenure

Promotion to Professor

Tenure as Associate Professor

From the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Promotion to Professor

From the School of Pharmacy

Promotion to Professor

IMS congratulates each of these faculty members for their excellence and dedication.

Four IMS Faculty Members Receive OVPR Scholarship Facilitation Award

Scholarship Facilitation Award Winners
(l-r) Drs. Farhad Imani, Jasna Jankovic, Tomoyasu Mani, and Luyi Sun

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:

  • Farhad Imani, Mechanical Engineering
    Brain-inspired Hyperdimensional Computing for Empowering Cognitive Additive Manufacturing
  • Jasna Jankovic, Material Science and Engineering
    STEAM Tree Earth Day Celebration
  • Tomoyasu Mani, Chemistry
    Stereoselective Control of Electron Transfer Reactions
  • Luyi Sun, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
    Publication in PNAS, a Premium Journal for Maximum Impact

IMS Congratulates these faculty members on this accomplishment.

Materials Research Society Features Nate Hohman in Podcast

MRS Bulletin PodcastNate 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.

Yang Cao in Collaboration on Project Funded by ARPA-E OPEN 2021

Yang Cao
Dr. Yang Cao

On February 14, 2022, ARPA-E announced $175 million for 68 OPEN 2021 research and development projects aimed at developing disruptive technologies to strengthen the nation’s advanced energy enterprise. These high-impact, high-risk technologies support novel approaches to clean energy challenges.

Associate Professor and Electrical Insulation Resource Center (EIRC) Director Yang Cao and fellow researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) will combine the functionality benefits of power electronics with the power density benefits of high-voltage cables to create a cohesive, all-in-one structure to replace bulky, inflexible power substations in today’s electrical grid. This “substation within a cable” design uses a cascade of coaxial power conversion cells to gradually step-down voltage to levels required by the loads. Virginia Tech’s module can achieve high power density and a form factor that enables seamless integration with the cable by mimicking a coaxial geometry design. This could eliminate the need for large and expensive power substations and enable simple integration of renewable energy sources, an electric vehicle fast-charging infrastructure, energy storage, and efficient direct current distribution lines.

The research project, Substation in a Cable for Adaptable, Low-cost Electrical Distribution (SCALED) has received $2,953,389 in funding support through the ARPA-E OPEN 2021 initiative.

Four IMS Faculty Members Elected to CASE

Hebert-Kumbar-Nieh-Teschke
(l-r) Drs. Rainer Hebert, Sangamesh Kumbar, Mu-Ping Nieh, and Carolyn Teschke

The Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering (CASE) announced the election of 35 new members for 2022 who the organization describe as leading experts in science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, and technology.  12 of those newly elected members are UConn faculty and four are faculty members of the Institute of Materials Science (IMS).

Rainer Hebert, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; Director of Pratt & Whitney Additive Manufacturing Center, Associate Director of the Institute of Materials Science

Sangamesh G. Kumbar, Associate Professor, Orthopaedic Surgery, Biomedical Engineering Health

Mu-Ping Nieh, Professor, Dept. of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, UConn School of Engineering and Institute of Materials Science

Carolyn Teschke, Professor and Interim Department Head, Molecular and Cell Biology, and Chemistry

The new members will be introduced at the Academy’s 47th Annual Meeting to be held virtually on May 26, 2022.  Read the full UConn Today story

Xueju “Sophie” Wang Receives NSF CAREER Award

Xueju "Sophie" WangMSE Assistant Professor Xueju “Sophie” Wang has been awarded the NSF Faculty Early Development Program CAREER Award for her proposal entitled “Mechanics of Active Polymers and Morphing structures: Determine the Role of Molecular Interactions and Stiffness Heterogeneity in Reversible Shape Morphing.” It is one of NSF’s most prestigious awards.

Wang’s NSF CAREER award will support her research on fundamental studies of the mechanics of innovative active polymers and morphing structures. Soft active polymers that can change their shapes and therefore functionalities upon exposure to external stimuli are promising for many applications, including soft robotics, artificial muscles and tissue repair. This research project aims to establish the missing correlations across the molecular, material and structural levels of novel active polymers for their rational design, manufacturing and applications, by using liquid crystal elastomers as a model material system.

“I am very grateful and honored to receive this prestigious award, and I look forward to working with my students to address challenges in innovative active polymers and to apply them in emerging fields like soft robotics,” Wang said.

Read the full Department of Materials Science and Engineering Story

Rajeswari Kasi to Serve on Editorial Board of Micromolecules

Rajeswari Kasi
Dr. Rajeswari Kasi

Professor of Chemistry Rajeswari (Raji) Kasi has accepted an appointment to the editorial board of Macromolecules, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the American Chemical Society. The publication was first published in 1968 on a bi-monthly basis but has, over the years, moved from monthly to bi-weekly publication.

Kasi’s research encompasses all aspects of materials design including synthesis of hierarchically structured polymers and polymer-hybrid materials with tailored architecture, functionality, and composition; investigation of self-assembly and structure at various length scales; and evaluation of unique macroscopic material properties. She will serve a three-year term on the editorial board.