IMS Faculty Members

Menka Jain is Co-organizer of 28th IWOE

Menka Jain
Dr. Menka Jain

The International Workshop on Oxide Electronics (IWOE) series has become an important venue to discuss recent advances and emerging trends in this developing field. The aim of the workshop is to provide an interdisciplinary forum for researchers – theorists as well as experimentalists – on understanding the fundamental electronic and structural properties and also on the design, synthesis, processing, characterization, and applications of (epitaxial) functional oxide materials.

Associate Professor of Physics and Institute of Materials Science (IMS) faculty member Menka Jain is co-organizer of the 28th International IWOE LogoWorkshop on Oxide Electronics (IWOE) to be held October 2-5 in Portland, Maine.  Dr. Jain serves on the program committee with Ryan Comes of Auburn University, Charles H. Ahn of Yale University, and Divine Kumah of North Carolina State University.  She is also the designer of the logo for the workshop (pictured).

The workshop will showcase results of critical scientific importance as well as studies revealing the technological potential of functional oxide thin films to create devices with enhanced performance.  Full abstract book of the talks and posters can be found at https://iwoe28.events.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Abstract%20book_draft.pdf.

Challa Kumar to Give Writing in Science Workshop at BITS

Challa V. Kumar
Dr. Challa V. Kumar

IMS faculty member Challa Vijaya Kumar will give the Writing in Science and Engineering Workshop at Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS).  253 Ph.D. students from various departments around the four  campuses of BITS have enrolled in the 4-day 12-hour workshop which will be held live with virtual attendance available.

Dr. Kumar is currently serving as a Fulbright-Nehru Distinguished Chair and has embarked on a series of seminars across India.  Awards in the Fulbright Distinguished Chairs Program are viewed as among the most prestigious appointments in the Fulbright Scholar Program.

In addition to the upcoming Writing in Science and Engineering workshop, Kumar has presented seminars at the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) Tirupati and Osmania University where he was presented with a certificate of appreciation for his support in organizing the “Current Trends and Futuristic Challenges in Chemistry” seminar in July.

Richard Parnas on FOG, Biofuels, and Wastewater Management

Professor Emeritus of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Richard Parnas, has been working on solutions to the oily waste we humans produce on a daily basis.  He has been on a journey to convert that waste into usable energy.  This quest has led to the patent of proprietary technology and the formation of REA Resources Recovery Services, a company he co-founded.  Along with his partners in the company and in partnership with UConn, Dr. Parnas set about to convert FOG (Fat, Oil, Grease) into biodiesel for the benefit of municipalities in the state.

In 2019, REA contracted with the City of Danbury to build a FOG to biodiesel processing facility at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.  That project has entered the construction phase and Parnas, REA, and UConn are now looking forward to the day the facility converts its first oily waste into usable biodiesel.  IMS News reached out to Dr. Parnas about his research, the Danbury project, and the future of wastewater management.

Richard Parnas
Dr. Richard Parnas

You have been researching and developing methods to convert FOG (Fat, Oil, Grease) into biodiesel fuel since 2006.  When did you first become interested in biofuels and what about biodiesel, in particular, led you down your current path?

I’ve been interested in biofuels, and green processing and green materials in general, for many years before coming to UConn. One of the important motivations for joining UConn was to participate in the development of the green economy. An undergraduate helped get me started working on biodiesel in the summer of 2007 by simply requesting my help to set up a biodiesel synthesis reaction in a fume hood.

When you became Director of the Biofuel Consortium here at UConn, you moved the bar from six gallons of biofuel produced over the course of a year to over 50 gallons continual production daily less than three years later.  When did you realize the scale at which you might be able to convert FOG into biodiesel?  What were the obstacles you faced and how were they overcome?

We used the yellow grease from UConn cafeterias to make biodiesel at that time, and the scale of operations was determined by the yellow grease production rate from the cafeterias. As a Chemical Engineer, my goal is always to maximize the use of available raw materials, and waste as small a fraction of that raw material as possible. Shortly after we started the Biofuel Consortium, we polled the various food service establishments at UConn to determine the yellow grease availability, and found it to be over 100 gallons per week. We then designed, built and installed a 50 gallon batch system, and produced 2 or 3 of the 50 gallon batches each week.

There were a number of obstacles. Production at that scale is not a typical academic activity so we faced skepticism from the facilities folks that ran the fuel depot for the buses. They asked if our fuel would be any good and how we would prove it to them, so we had to set up testing capability. Our testing was developed and run by Prof. James Stuart, an analytical chemist. Prof. Stuart and I received a grant of over $600,000 dollars to set up a biodiesel fuel quality testing facility in the Center for Environmental Science and Engineering (CESE) to test our biodiesel and the biodiesel produced by private companies. We also faced skepticism from the UConn administration since we were operating at a much larger scale than is typical. Safety concerns are important when conducting such operations with students who are just learning how to handle chemicals.

REA Resource Recovery Systems, a company which you co-founded and worked in collaboration with UConn to patent exclusive technology, has entered Phase 4 of itsREA Logo planned development of a 5000 square foot facility in Danbury that will turn FOG into biofuel.  How important is wastewater management for municipalities and what will be the benefits for the City of Danbury once the facility is online.

I joined my two partners, Al Barbarotta and Eric Metz, to found REA at the end of 2017. The UConn patents were already in place for a piece of core technology called a counterflow multi-phase reactor that plays a key role in both the chemical conversion and in the product purification. Prof. Nicholas Leadbeatter from Chemistry is a co-inventor with me on that reactor, along with two undergraduate students. Beginning in 2015, I started working with a very low grade feedstock called brown grease, which is much harder to process than the yellow grease we had been working with earlier. Every single wastewater treatment plant in the world has a brown grease management and disposal problem, and every municipality has a wastewater management problem. In much of the world, wastewater management is required by law and heavily regulated to ensure that effluent meets standards for discharge into rivers and oceans.

Here in CT, the brown grease problem was handled by DEEP many years ago by mandating that certain wastewater treatment plants in the state become FOG receiving stations. Brown grease is the component of FOG that causes all the problems. These FOG receiving stations were given a small set of choices as to how to dispose of the brown grease they received, such as by landfilling or incineration. All the choices cost money and vectored pollution into the air, the land, or the water.

Danbury was mandated to become a FOG receiving facility several years ago, and undertook a general plant upgrade project to build a FOG receiving facility and then dispose of the FOG using biodigesters. When that disposal pathway became too difficult due to high cost they sought alternatives. REA was ready at that time to provide the alternative of converting the brown grease into a salable product, biodiesel. This solution provides two benefits to Danbury, an environmentally excellent disposal method and a source of revenue. REA estimates that the revenue will offset the cost of the project in Danbury in about 7 years, and that the payback period will be significantly shorter in larger facilities.

It has been 15 years since you undertook this journey of making biodiesel a viable alternative energy source.  How does it feel to see your years of work coming to fruition with the Danbury project?

It feels terrifying because we have not yet started up the Danbury plant. When we successfully start Danbury, the relief and satisfaction will be enormous. Until then, for the next few months, everyone associated with the project is working very hard to finish the installation.

Since retiring in 2020, you appear to be just as active in your pursuit of science.  What continues to drive you and is there anything you miss now that you have retired?

I am driven by the desire to see this biodiesel project through to completion and by the desire to play some small role in mitigating the unfolding climate catastrophe. When I started at UConn I was surprised that the academic definition of project completion is a final report. As an engineer, that did not seem to be enough because most reports are ignored and forgotten. Sometimes I miss the teaching aspect of working at UConn, but I think I most miss the camaraderie of my colleagues, with whom I have much less time now than I used to.

Yu Lei Invents Low-Abundance Biomarker Detection Platform for Early Diagnosis

from UConn Today

Dr. Yu Lei
Dr. Yu Lei

Yu Lei, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, has invented a new platform that can perform high-sensitivity readings for a variety of disease biomarkers.

In the 1970s, scientists invented the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Since then, ELISA has been the standard for detecting biomarkers.

Biomarkers are molecules present in the body that indicate the presence or severity of a disease. For example, autoantibodies can help detect autoimmune diseases, or a peptide known as amyloid-β can indicate Alzheimer’s disease.

One of the major limitations for ELISA is that if there is a low concentration of the molecule of interest, it cannot detect it. Lei’s invention addresses this problem by adding two amplification steps to ELISA’s process.

“We wanted to bridge the need for ultra-sensitivity, and also compatibility with the existing plate-based platform,” Lei says.

ELISA works using a “sandwich” of two antibodies specifically designed to capture/detect the biomarker of interest between them. One of these antibodies has an enzyme attached to it that will produce a readable signal when it encounters the substrate.

Lei introduced a two-step amplification to the ELISA reaction. Lei first added a tyramide signal amplification (TSA) process to amplify the signal of a low abundance biomarker. In Lei’s platform, the TSA step anchors numerous biotins onto the immunocomplexes. Lei then introduced the reporter enzyme alkaline phosphate (ALP) conjugated with streptavidin, which attaches to the biotins through the strong interaction between biotin and streptavidin.

Dr. Lei's Research
Lei’s technology advances traditional ELISA kits through the addition of two novel steps. (Yu Lei Provided image)

Lei added an ELFA-saturated ELFP substrate that ALP breaks down to produce a fluorescent signal. These molecules that precipitate through the system to form a readable layer consisting of fluorescent needles that a microscope captures as a series of images and counts. This fluorescent microneedle count corresponds to how much of the biomarker is in the sample.

“That’s the beauty of the system using ELFA-saturated ELFP substrate and counting-based method, we achieved rapid detection and at the same time no matter your initial number of target molecules their precipitating time is starting from the same point,” Lei says.

Lei successfully demonstrated that his process was able to achieve a resolution of 50 to 60 picograms per milliliter. This is about 20 times more sensitive than traditional ELISA using the same commercial ELISA kit.

Lei published his findings in the March issue of Analytica Chimica Acta.

This advancement could be extremely useful for early-stage detection of diseases and treatment.

“A lot of disease detection occurs when symptoms are already onset,” Lei says. “That biomarker concentration is already very high. So then, if we can detect at a very low concentration, we can capture the earliest stage and treatment may be more effective.”

Lei says the next step for this technology is to smoothly integrate it into conventional plate-based ELISA systems. This would allow the process, which currently takes about four hours for low-abundance biomarker detection, to be much faster by using advanced imaging systems.

Designing a Lighter, Denser Fuel Cell

from UConn Today

Fuel Cells
Fuel cells are a promising direction for cleaner energy, and a team of UConn researchers is working to improve their design (Adobe Stock).

Fuel cell technology is continuously evolving as renewable energy and alternate energy sources become an increasingly important means of reducing global dependence on fossil fuels. Planar fuel cells, a prevalent design, can be bulky, have compression issues, and uneven current distribution. Other drawbacks include problems with reactant gas transport, excess water removal, and fabrication challenges associated with their design.

A team of UConn researchers led by Jasna Jankovic, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering, has devised a novel design for a tubular polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell that addresses those shortcomings and improves on existing tubular PEM fuel cell designs, most of which take a planar PEM fuel cell and curl it into a cylinder.

Jankovic and two grad students, Sara Pedram and Sean Small, took a more holistic approach that rethinks tubular fuel cell design from the ground up. Their disruptive, patent-pending concept could potentially have nearly twice the energy density of other tubular PEM fuel cells, be 50 percent lighter, have a replaceable inner electrode and electrolyte (if liquid), a leak-proof configuration, and require fewer precious metals.

That’s a big deal, says Michael Invernale, a senior licensing manager at UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services (TCS) working with Jankovic to bring the concept to market. Much of the effort to improve fuel cell design, he says, has focused on the end user instead of the greater good.

“A fuel cell with refillable components is a kind of solution that does that,” says Invernale.  “An airline relying on this technology would have more incentive to rebuild a component. Right now, it might be cheaper to replace the whole unit. That’s really where this design shines. The features of the design are green and sustainable and renewable.”

Fuel cells are essentially refuelable electrochemical power generation devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, heat, and water. Each type is classified primarily by the kind of electrolyte it uses. Planar fuel cells are constructed using sandwich-like stacks of large, rectangular flow field plates made of graphite or metal, which account for about 80 percent of their weight and 40 percent of their cost. UConn’s design uses a single tube-shaped flow field that reduces its weight by half.

Jasna Jankovic
Dr. Jasna Jankovic

The concept is still in discovery and has I-Corps and Partnership for Innovation (PFI) funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program was created to spur the translation of fundamental research to the marketplace, encourage collaboration between academia and industry, and train NSF-funded faculty, students, and other researchers in innovation and entrepreneurship skills.

Participating research teams have the opportunity to interview potential customers to learn more about their needs. Jankovic and her team conducted some 60 interviews during a UConn Accelerator program in early 2022 that helped them size up the market and answer important questions about whether or not to start a longer process, make the product themselves, or license the technology to another company.

“It was very useful to get feedback and guidance from people in industry” Jankovic says.

Jankovic led the team as PI, with Pedram and Small, acting as Entrepreneurial Lead and Co-Lead respectively. Lenard Bonville, the team’s industrial mentor, will support the team with his decades of industrial experience. The team will conduct another set of 100 interviews with industry to discover the market for their product and get guidance on its final design. NSF-Partnership for Innovation (PFI) funding will then be used to develop a prototype and pursue commercialization.

Fuel cells have a wide range of applications, from powering  homes and businesses, to keeping critical facilities like hospitals, grocery stores, and data centers up and running, and moving a variety of vehicles, including cars, buses, trucks, forklifts, trains, and more. Jankovic’s team is working toward obtaining a full patent on their design and thoroughly testing the concept. In the short term, they are focused on commercializing the technology and attracting potential partners.

Jankovic envisions creating a fuel cell roughly the size of a AA battery however, as a scalable and modular technology, it could be scaled-up to any practical size. The cylindrical shape would allow for more fuel cells to occupy the same amount of space as those in use now and be cheaper to manufacture, Invernale said. Jankovic views her fuel cell design as a replacement for Lithium-Ion batteries.

Jankovic said her seven years in industry before coming to UConn convinced her there was a need in the market for a new and better fuel cell design.

“From that experience, I knew that planar fuel cells had a few issues,” she says. “I kept asking around, and I said, ‘let’s do it and find out yes or no.”

Dr. Cato Laurencin Publishes Breakthrough Report on Rotator Cuff Regeneration Treatment

from UConn Today

Cato Laurencin
Dr. Cato Laurencin

A new way to regenerate muscle could help repair the damaged shoulders of millions of people every year. The technique uses advanced materials to encourage muscle growth in rotator cuff muscles. Dr. Cato Laurencin and his team reported the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) August 8th issue.

Tears of the major tendons in the shoulder joint, commonly called the rotator cuff, are common injuries in adults. Advances in surgery have made ever better rotator cuff repairs possible. But failure rates with surgery can be high.  Now, a team of researchers from the UConn School of Medicine led by Laurencin, a surgeon, engineer and scientist, reports that a graphene/polymer matrix embedded into shoulder muscle can prevent re-tear injuries.

“Most repairs focus on the tendon,” and how to reattach it to the bone most effectively, Laurencin says. “But the real problem is that the muscle degenerates and accumulates fat. With a tear, the muscle shrinks, and the body grows fat in that area instead. When the tendon and muscle are finally reattached surgically to the shoulder bone, the weakened muscle can’t handle normal stresses and the area can be re-injured again.

Dr. Laurencin along with graduate student Nikoo Shemshaki worked with other UConn Connecticut Convergence Institute researchers to develop a polymer mesh infused with nanoplatelets of graphene. When they used it to repair the shoulders of rats who had chronic rotator cuff tears with muscle atrophy, the muscle grew back. When they tried growing muscle on the mesh in a petri dish in the lab, they found the material seemed to encourage the growth of myotubes, precursors of muscle, and discourage the formation of fat.

“This is really a potential breakthrough treatment for tears of the rotator cuff. It addresses the real problem: muscle degeneration and fat accumulation,” Laurencin says.

The next step in their work is studying the matrix in a large animal. The team looks forward to developing the technology in humans.

This work was funded by NIH National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Grant No. DP1AR068147 and National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Grant No. 1332329.

Department of Energy Early Career Award Recipient Yuanyuan Zhu

Yuanyuan Zhu
Dr. Yuanyuan Zhu is the only Connecticut recipient of the DOE Early Career Award for 2022.

Established in 2010, the DOE Office of Science Early Career Research Program supports the individual research programs of outstanding scientists early in their careers and stimulates research careers in the disciplines supported by the DOE Office of Science: Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR), Biological and Environmental Research (BER), Basic Energy Sciences (BES), Fusion Energy Sciences (FES), High Energy Physics (HEP), Isotope R&D and Production (IP), and Nuclear Physics (NP).

Among the 83 university and DOE national lab researchers announced as recipients of the award for 2022, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Yuanyuan Zhu is the only Connecticut researcher to receive the honor.  IMS News asked Dr. Zhu about her research and the award.

In 2019, you were appointed Director of the UConn DENSsolutions InToEM Center for in-situ TEM research at IPB Tech Park.  You have since had papers published related to the research the Center is conducting.  As we are seeing more and more evidence of the effects of climate change, how do you hope your research at the InToEM Center will assist in solving some of the problems we are now dealing with?

Yes, we have published a couple of papers since 2019 using the in-situ environmental TEM gas cell. Here you can find our full publications: https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=HlDqamcAAAAJ&view_op=list_works&sortby=pubdate .

It’s a coincidence that the DENSsolutions’ ETEM gas cell system is named as “Climate”, because it involves gas environment for chemical reactions in a microscope. Another example is their liquid cell system, which is called “Stream” simply because the reaction stimuli involved.

There are many materials researches related to energy and environment, including climate change, that can benefit from the in-situ ETEM research. One immediate example is heterogeneous catalysis used for natural gas conversion and H2 production. And the fusion energy materials research funded by the DOE ECA is another good example.

Congratulations on receiving the Department of Energy’s Early Career Award for 2022.  What are your hopes for your research on Understanding Thermal Oxidation of Tungsten and the Impact to Radiation Under Fusion Extremes?

Fusion energy holds great promise for replacing fossil fuels for 24/7 baseload electrical power. We are excited that the DOE Early Career Award will fund our in-situ ETEM study to directly address a well-known fusion safety hazard concerning aggressive high-temperature oxidation of plasma-facing material tungsten. We hope to gain fundamental understanding of tungsten degradation in case of air-ingress scenarios that could inform the best strategy for responding to accidents, and could guide the design of advanced W-based materials that better preserve divertor integrity for even more demanding DEMO fusion extremes. Simply put it, we want to make the operation of fusion energy systems safer and more reliable.

You have several Ph.D. candidates under your advisement.  How do you hope to influence these young scientists?

Our research group provides a welcoming, supportive and inclusive working environment to drive personal success for each Ph.D. researcher. Through the first-hand work on such research projects closely to clean energy and sustainability, I believe our Ph.D. students will gain confidence and skills in research and also develop a solid sense of social responsibility.

We are seeing many more women represented in STEM.  What advice would you give to young women who may be considering a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?

We need everyone in STEM, and anything is possible if one follows his/her/their passion. Research is fun but progress is built on failure and resilience.

 

Cato T. Laurencin Named 2023 Priestley Medalist

from UConn Today

Dr. Cato Laurencin
Scientist and engineer, Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, has been honored for seminal and lasting research benefiting humankind.

Cato T. Laurencin, the University Professor and Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Endowed Professor at the University of Connecticut will receive the 2023 Priestley Medal, the highest honor of the American Chemical Society.

He is recognized as the leading international figure in polymeric biomaterials chemistry and engineering who has made extraordinary scientific contributions, while at the same time he has had profound contributions to improving human health through the results of his work. While trained in polymeric chemistry, Laurencin’s overall training is broad and interdisciplinary. He received his B.S.E. in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and simultaneously received his M.D., Magna Cum Laude from the Harvard Medical School. He then joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and opened a polymer chemistry research laboratory. At the same time he trained and became a board certified orthopaedic surgeon.

Dr. Laurencin produced seminal work on polymeric nanofiber chemistry technology for biomedical purposes, heralding the new field. He pioneered the understanding and development of polymer-ceramic systems for bone regeneration for which the American Institute of Chemical Engineers named him one of the 100 engineers of the modern era at its Centennial celebration. In a three decade collaboration with Professor Harry Allcock at Penn State, Laurencin worked in the development of polyphosphazenes for biomedical purposes. Dr. Laurencin has had breakthrough achievements in the areas of materials chemistry and engineering of soft tissue implants for regeneration of tissue including the development of the Laurencin-Cooper (LC) Ligament for anterior cruciate ligament regeneration (knee). The development of the LC Ligament was highlighted by National Geographic Magazine in its “100 Discoveries that Changed the World” edition.

In his latest work, Dr. Laurencin has pioneered a new field, Regenerative Engineering, described as the Convergence of areas such as nanomaterials science and chemistry. His work has described the chemistry of signaling molecules for tissue regeneration and he published this work in Plos One (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.01016272014). He demonstrated the ability these molecules in combination with polymeric materials chemistry to induce tissue regeneration.  In his most recent work he has used principles of polymer chemistry to create cell-like structures. This has allowed the creation of what is being considered a new class of stem cells: synthetic artificial stem cells (SASC). The work was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The impact of the new field has become clear. The NIH Awarded him their highest and most prestigious award, the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award for his field of Regenerative Engineering. The NSF awarded him their most transformative grant, the Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Grant (EFRI) for Regenerative Engineering. Dr. Laurencin is the Editor-in-Chief of Regenerative Engineering and Translational Medicine, a journal published by Springer Nature. He is the Founder of the Regenerative Engineering Society (now a community of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers). The American Institute of Chemical Engineers Foundation created and endowed the Cato T. Laurencin Regenerative Engineering Founder’s Award honoring Dr. Laurencin’s work and legacy in this new field. He is the first individual to receive highest distinctions across science, engineering, medicine and technology for this work. In science, he received the Philip Hauge Abelson Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded “for signal contributions to the advancement of science in the United States”.  He was awarded both the highest/oldest honor of the National Academy of Engineering (the Simon Ramo Founders Award) and one of highest/oldest honors of the National Academy of Medicine (the Walsh McDermott Prize). And he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, our nation’s highest for technological achievement in ceremonies at the White House.  Most recently, he received the 2021 Spingarn Medal given for the “highest or noblest achievement by a living African American during the preceding year or years in any honorable field.”  The highest award of the NAACP, they stated “his exceptional career has made him the foremost engineer-physician-scientist in the world.”

Dr. Laurencin has also profoundly contributed to mentoring and fostering diversity. He has been responsible for the development of a generation of underrepresented engineers and scientists. In receiving the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mentor Award, it was noted that the majority of African-American faculty in bioengineering had been mentored by Laurencin. For his work in mentoring, he was honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering Mentoring. Remarkably, he received the 2021 Hoover Medal given jointly by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers (AIME) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), The purpose of the medal is “to recognize great, unselfish, non-technical services by engineers to humanity.” Dr. Laurencin’s extraordinary commitment to inclusion, equity and fairness along with his legendary work in mentoring lead to his selection.

Dr. Laurencin’s life, career and philosophy are contained in his recently published biography entitled “Success is What You Leave Behind,” published by Elsevier.

OVPR Announces SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund Recipients for 2022-23

from UConn Today

Eugene Pinkhassik
Dr. Eugene Pinkhassik

Luyi Sun
Dr. Luyi Sun

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) recently announced the recipients of the 2022-23 SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund Program.  Five recipients were selected for internal funding through the program. They include researchers from UConn and UConn Health.

SPARK supports innovative proof-of-concept studies seeking to translate research discoveries into products, processes, and other commercial applications. The program’s primary goal is advancing primary faculty inventions toward the market, where they can have a positive impact for UConn, society, and Connecticut’s economy.

The 2022-23 awardees competed for funding in a highly selective process. Congratulations to the following:

Laijun Lai, UConn, Department of Allied Health Sciences
Targeting TAPBPL in antitumor immune therapy

Raman Bahal, UConnDepartment of Pharmaceutical Science
Liver- and Kidney-targeted delivery of next generation miRNA inhibitors using carbohydrate-based conjugates

Eugene Pinkhassik, UConnDepartment of Chemistry/Institute of Materials Science
Integration of palladium-catalyzed reactions in continuous manufacturing

Ali Tamayol, UConn HealthDepartment of Biomedical Engineering
Engineering a Handheld One-step Foaming and Printing Device for the Treatment of Soft Tissue Injuries

Luyi Sun, UConnDepartment of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering/Institute of Materials Science
High Performance Nanocoatings for Packaging Applications

For more information about SPARK, visit the program website.

Multidisciplinary Team Wins $3M for Graduate Program

from UConn Today

Multidisciplinary Team Wins $3M for Graduate Program
Arash Esmaili Zaghi, left, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, left, Fabiana Cardetti, professor of mathematics, and Jie Luo, a graduate student, with the fMRI, and Fumiko Hoeft, professor of psychological sciences, Nicole Landi, associate professor of psychological sciences, are in the control room at the UConn Brain Imaging Research Center on March 7, 2022. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

An ambitious team of researchers from across the University has won $3mn from the National Science Foundation to pursue a project in the neuroscience of learning.

The program, known as TRANSCEND: TRANSdisciplinary Convergence in Educational Neuroscience Doctoral training, aims to get graduate students from both classic and atypical backgrounds into educational neuroscience research.

“We will take an innovative approach and truly break the silos in educational neuroscience between lab research, research in the schools and the community. We also have a particularly strong focus not only on neurodiverse learners as the topic of research but also to involve them as graduate students. Neurodiverse learners are one of the most underrepresented groups in higher ed and the STEM workforce despite their tremendous talent,” says Fumiko Hoeft, interim director of the Waterbury campus, director of UConn’s Brain Imaging Research Center (BIRC) and the principal investigator on the project.

The team also includes co-principal investigators Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology Ido Davidesco, Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology Nicole Landi, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and IMS faculty member, Arash Esmaili Zaghi, and Professor of Clinical Psychology Inge-Marie Eigsti; and co-investigators Professor of Psychology James Magnuson, Professor of Mathematics Fabiana Cardetti, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Jinbo Bi, and Vice Provost for Graduate Education Kent Holsinger. Hoeft and Landi will co-direct TRANSCEND.

TRANSCEND will use the grant to allow second year graduate students to spend a full year researching convergent questions in educational neuroscience, with an emphasis on virtuous cycles between school and lab-based research, interdisciplinary team science, and in all areas of learning such as STEM and reading as well as developing the next generation of learning technologies using artificial intelligence (AI), with an underlying theme of neurodiversity.

The hope is that the students will then stay in the program and continue research on their topic of choice for their dissertation. Graduate students can be from any field of cognitive science, neuroscience, educational psychology, mathematics, computer science, and engineering. All graduate students in the program will have the opportunity to collect data in classrooms and in UConn labs, including the BIRC, the Cognitive Sciences Shared Electrophysiology Resource Lab, and the new mobile neuroscience lab by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that is planned to come online by this winter.

Community engagement will be key for generating project ideas and at every step of the process; graduate students will research questions that communities and teachers want answered. Leveraging Hoeft’s new position at

Multidisciplinary Team Wins $3M for Graduate Program
Researchers from Dr. Landi’s lab training high school student interns to place an EEG cap on a younger student’s head at the AIM Academy. (Landi Lab Photo, with permission from AIM Academy).

UConn Waterbury and this grant, she hopes to engage the Waterbury students and the community to bring new programs and collaboration to the campus.

For example, a team of students from computer science, educational psychology and cognitive neuroscience may develop a learning technology leveraging AI and natural language processing models, using accessible neuroimaging technologies such as portable electroencephalography, in partnership with an education technology company and a school.

“We want every STEM and Education grad student in the University to know they can join this. The funding is for their second year, but we want the graduate students to stay involved in the program throughout graduate school,” says Arash Zaghi, a structural engineering professor.

Zaghi began researching neurodiversity when he was diagnosed with ADHD early in his career as an engineer. He found that there was a lot of research showing great creative potential from neurodiverse people, but also great difficulties that lead them to drop out of university settings. Part of the motivation behind this collaboration is to generate strategies that both teachers and students can use to create strength and success from neurodiversity.

Hoeft and Zaghi also emphasize that neurodiverse students are strongly encouraged to apply. The team has partnership with universities in the NSF INCLUDES national network such as Landmark College, a college for students with learning disabilities. They hope to attract their students into graduate school at UConn through this grant. There are also almost 40 other partners, including schools, the Connecticut Department of Education, advocacy groups, and technology companies, all of whom are interested in gaining interns from the program and participating in research through partnership with UConn. Through this program, their hope is that neuroscience can help design and deliver education that helps all students reach their full potential, and at the same time enhance the STEM workforce.