UConn IMS

Alex Asandei Awarded 6th Consecutive Single-PI NSF Grant

Alexandru Asandei
Dr. Alexandru Asandei

With the support of the Macromolecular, Supramolecular and Nanochemistry program in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Chemistry, Associate Professor of Chemistry and faculty member in the IMS Polymer Program Alexandru D. Asandei,  is developing new methods for the precise synthesis of novel fluorinated polymeric materials with complex architectures, as well as exploring the re/upcycling of commercial fluoropolymers.

Fluoropolymers are contrasted to conventional polymers with even simple homo/random fluoropolymers exhibiting outstanding chemical, thermal and flame resistance, biocompatibility, and unique electronic properties which render them important in high-end applications such as battery, aerospace, sensing, medical device, building, construction, and automotive industries. However, the chemical tools for the precise synthesis of analogous complex fluoropolymer materials (blocks, grafts etc.) are lacking. Thus, the project goals include the development of the required novel chemistry, to explore hitherto unknown and unavailable materials with potentially superior properties and applications leading to the associated societal benefits.

While technologically important, fluoropolymers suffer from a number of factors that have hampered new developments. These factors include a combination of very low monomer reactivity, very high propagating polymer chain end reactivity, complex and often hazardous laboratory setups, and the general lack of appropriate polymer chemistry tools (initiators, catalysts, coupling agents etc.). Accordingly, fluoroalkenes remain some of the most challenging monomers for both controlled radical and coordination polymerizations, where manipulation of molecular weight, polydispersity and architecture/sequence are of paramount importance for the emerging properties. In addition, current re/upcycling of industrial fluoropolymers remain minimal.

The proposed research aims at developing innovative and environmentally conscious chemistry (e.g. water, visible light catalysis etc.), to overcome the above deficiencies, and significantly enlarges the fluoro, organic and polymer synthesis toolbox, while providing access to novel fluoropolymer materials. This includes the elaboration of novel, functional, universal radical initiating systems that enable both controlled radical fluoro/regular alkene polymerizations and chain end derivatizations/couplings towards the synthesis of multiblock copolymers, in-depth mechanistic investigations on optimizing polymerization parameters and understanding the structure/property/function in the resulting fluoropolymers, as well as exploration of the coordination polymerization of fluoroalkenes, and the up/recycling of industrial fluoropolymers.

The project provides training and education to undergraduate and graduate students, including minority and female students, in synthetic organic, organometallic, and polymer chemistry. The project also has strong industrial impact, important outreach activities, and the results will be broadly disseminated in the scientific literature and national and international meetings.

UConn Signs Contract With Air Force Research Laboratory

from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

A robotic welding arms in operation.
A robotic welding arms in operation.

UConn recently received $10.5 million from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for research on high-temperature materials and manufacturing processes. The funding will allow a team of seven faculty members from Materials Science and Engineering (Professors Aindow, Alpay, Frame, and Hebert), Civil and Environmental Engineering (Professor Kim), Mechanical Engineering (Professor Bilal), and Chemistry (Professor Suib) along with post-doctoral associates and graduate assistants to address challenges in the manufacturing of aerial systems intended to fly at high speed. Much of the four-year research project will focus on welding-related challenges for high-temperature metallic materials that are used for structures exposed to high speeds. The UConn team will combine experimental and theoretical approaches to help their collaborator, RTX, advance their manufacturing solutions. Additional project tasks address the behavior of non-metallic high-temperature materials under different processing and service conditions, additive manufacturing of high-temperature refractory metals, and the design and processing of metamaterials. These metamaterials are designed to change heat- and electro-magnetic fields in and around structures and are considered to advance the thermal management of high-temperature structures.

The new AFRL project comes at the heels of previous and ongoing AFRL projects for UConn approaching $30 million that involve over 15 faculty members from the Colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences with dozens of graduate students and post-doctoral associates. Covering research from functional materials and photonics to casting, welding, and additive manufacturing, the UConn team has established itself as a valuable partner for the AFRL and key industry partners, for example, Pratt & Whitney and Collins Aerospace.

Professor Rainer Hebert says of the contract, “The AFRL funding enables the UConn team to pursue materials processing research with a strong focus on industry and government relevance. Students and post-doctoral associates working on the project see firsthand how their research translates to industry. This insight will help in preparing a workforce that can pursue research excellence with a keen sense of the needs and constraints of industrial applications.”

12 UConn Faculty Elected to CASE

CASE 2024 new members from IMS
(l to r) Drs. Bodhisattwa Chaudhuri, Yupeng Chen, Avinash Dongare, Liisa T. Kuhn, and David Pierce are among the 12 UConn faculty selected as members of CASE for 2024.

The Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering (CASE), an organization of academic and industry professionals who advise the state government on matters of science and industry, announced the election of 35 new members in 2024. Twelve of these new members — over a third — are UConn faculty. Nearly half of those selected from UConn are members of the Institute of Materials Science (IMS).

  • Bodhisattwa Chaudhuri, Professor, UConn School of Pharmacy
  • Yupeng Chen, Associate Professor, Biomedical Engineering, UConn College of Engineering
  • Avinash Dongare, Professor, Materials Science and Engineering, UConn College of Engineering 
  • Liisa T. Kuhn, Professor and Associate Department Head, Biomedical Engineering, UConn Health 
  • David Pierce, Professor, Mechanical, Aerospace and Manufacturing Engineering, UConn College of Engineering

All new members will be introduced at the Academy’s 49th Annual Meeting and Dinner at the Woodwinds in Branford, CT on May 21, 2024. IMS congratulates all the new CASE members.

Read the full story at UConn Today

Jessica Rouge Empowers Underrepresented Women in Science

Jessica Rouge (far left) with the members of her lab (UConn Photo).

Before sunrise, Jessica Rouge used to leap out of bed in the glow of darkness and race to the Charles River with her teammates for crew practice.  

A few hours later, the future UConn associate chemistry professor would run back to Boston College for her morning science class: she was among a small group of female students pursuing a B.S. degree in biochemistry. 

Rouge still sprints, but in a different way: now, she doubles as teacher, mother to two toddlers, mentor to young scientists, hobby musician and soon she will potentially add another role to her repertoire: science entrepreneur. 

Rouge’s lab group, which is more than 50 percent female, “seeks to understand how enzymes and nucleic acids can be used in new ways to engineer highly specific and targeted responses in chemical and biological systems. Specifically, her team is interested in developing new chemical strategies for assembling catalytic RNA sequences at nanoparticle surfaces for sensing, diagnostic, and therapeutic applications.” 

Rouge was a 2022-2023 recipient of the SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, a program that helps shepherd the process of translating invention to entrepreneurial success. 

With the preclinical data she was able to secure using the Spark Fund resources, Rouge is hopeful that she and her collaborators are close to licensing her technology. 

Read the full story at UConn Today

Collaborative Research to Develop Filament-Based Hydrogels is Cover for JACS

Cover of JACS March 6, 2024 issue featuring Yao Lin etal. researchIn a collaborative effort, researchers from the University of Connecticut (led by Profs. Yao Lin, VJ Kumar and Xudong Yao) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (led by Prof. Jianjun Cheng) have made an advance in the rational design of synthetic polypeptides to develop filament-based hydrogels. The work, conceptualized and realized by the graduate students Tianjian Yang (UConn) and Tianrui Xue (UIUC), has been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) and featured as the cover of the March 6 issue.

Building on the recent advancement of autoaccelerated ring-opening polymerization of amino acid N-carboxyanhydrides (NCAs), this study strategically explores a series of random copolymers comprising multiple amino acids, aiming to elucidate the core principles governing gelation pathways of these purpose-designed copolypeptides. The team found that the selection of amino acids steered both the morphology of fibril superstructures and their assembly kinetics, subsequently determining their potential to form sample-spanning networks. Importantly, the viscoelastic properties of the resulting supramolecular hydrogels can be tailored according to the specific copolypeptide composition through modulations in filament densities and lengths. The findings enhance our understanding of directed self-assembly in high molecular weight synthetic copolypeptides, offering valuable insights for the development of synthetic fibrous networks and biomimetic supramolecular materials with custom-designed properties.

The research was supported by NSF grants awarded to Yao Lin at UConn (DMR 1809497 and 2210590) and Jianjun Cheng at UIUC (CHE 1905097).

Nguyen Lab Explores Benefits of Using Microneedle Arrays for Vaccine Delivery

from UConn Today

Thanh Nguyen, center, is pictured here with members of his 2022-23 lab.
Thanh Nguyen, center, is pictured here with members of his 2022-23 lab.

In rural areas, especially in developing countries, the long distance to a medical facility may hinder a population from getting vaccinations, and especially booster doses.

Vaccines—for everything from influenza to COVID-19 to pneumococcal diseases—are stored at a low temperature for stability and are typically administrated through a hypodermic needle and syringe from a health care professional.

“What if we were able to mail people vaccines that don’t need refrigeration and they could apply them to their own skin like a bandage?” asked Thanh Nguyen, associate professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at the University of Connecticut. “And what if we could easily vaccinate people—once—where they wouldn’t need a booster? We could potentially eradicate polio, measles, rubella, and COVID-19.”

The answer, Nguyen believes, is administrating vaccines through a programmable microneedle array patch with a novel process he is developing at his lab at UConn.

By adhering a nearly painless, 1-centimeter-square biodegradable patch to the skin, a person can receive a preprogrammed delivery of highly-concentrated vaccines in powder form—over months—and eliminate the need for boosters. “The primary argument is that getting vaccines and boosters is a pain,” Nguyen said. “You have to go back two or three times to get these shots. With the microneedle platform, you put it on once, and it’s done. You have your vaccine and you have your boosters. You don’t have to go back to the doctor or hospital.” 

This month, UConn’s Institute of Materials Science received a three-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support Nguyen’s research on “Single-Administration Self-boosting Microneedle Platform for Vaccines and Therapeutics.” The project’s goal is to develop a low-cost manufacturing process.  

The Nguyen Research Group has already been working to thermally-stabilize vaccines and other therapeutics so they can stay inside the skin for a long period. In 2020, Nature Biomedical Engineeringpublished a study by Nguyen and his colleagues reporting that, in rats, microneedles loaded with a clinically available vaccine (Prevnar-13) against a bacterium provided similar immune protection as multiple bolus injections.  

“We’ve been able to show this technology is safe and effective in the small animal model, but now the question is, how do we translate it into the commercialized stage and make it useful to the end user, which is the human,” he said.  

With support from the Gates Foundation, Nguyen will be able to test his microneedle platform on a larger animal—a pig, which has skin similar to humans. And if the results are similar, Nguyen predicts this technology could be manufactured, at an affordable cost, enabling both domestic and global health impact.

Nguyen’s microneedle platform also caught the attention of the United States Department of Agriculture. In September, the USDA: Research, Education, and Economics division awarded Nguyen with a two-year grant for a study titled “Delivery of FMDV Protein Antigens Using a Programmable Transdermal Microneedle System.” 

The Foot-and-Mouth Disease Virus (FMDV) is a highly contagious disease that affects the health of livestock such as cows, pigs, sheep, and goats. When an outbreak occurs, the disease leaves affected animals weakened and unable to produce meat and milk. FMDV causes production losses and hardships for farmers and ranchers, and has serious impacts on livestock trade.

And while vaccines exist, like with humans, boosters are required to keep the vaccine effective.   

USDA is interested in the technology because the patch will be able to deliver the initial dose and subsequent doses, or boosters, to animals without the need for rounding up and handling multiple animals at once,” Nguyen explained. “This decreases stress on the animals and increases safety for the animals and their handlers.”

The microneedle platform is among the latest applications the Nguyen Research Group is exploring in the arena of vaccine/drug delivery, tissue regenerative engineering, “smart” piezoelectric materials, electronic implants, and bioelectronics. Since joining the College of Engineering in 2016, Nguyen has discovered a method of sending electric pulses through a biodegradable polymer to assist with cartilage regeneration; he’s designed a powerful biodegradable ultrasound device that could make brain cancers more treatable; and he used microneedle patches to deliver antibody therapies, which have been proven successful in treating HIV, autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, and certain types of cancer.  

Christina Tamburro, post-award grants and contracts specialist for UConn’s Institute of Materials Science said IMS is grateful to both the Gates Foundation and USDA for supporting Professor Nguyen’s drug delivery research.  

“This is a wonderful application of material science and this is what we’re all about. Ultimately, this is going to save lives and it can’t get better than that,” she said.

Antigoni Konstantinou Receives 2023-2024 GE Fellowship for Excellence

Ph.D. Student Antigoni Konstantinou
IMS Materials Science Program Ph.D. candidate Antigoni Konstantinou

The College of Engineering recently announced the recipients of its General Electric Fellowship for Excellence.  The award was established to recognize the excellence of current graduate students and to facilitate their completion of the Ph.D. program.  Fellows are selected for their outstanding track records in research and professional service in the areas of advanced materials, manufacturing, and energy.  Antigoni Konstantinou, an Institute of Materials Science (IMS) Materials Science Program Ph.D. student, has been named a recipient of this honor.

Ms. Konstantinou has exhibited academic excellence in both research and leadership.  She currently serves as president of the 2023-2024 e-board for the John Lof Leadership Academy (JLLA). From this position, she empowers UConn’s graduate student community by nurturing essential leadership skills, especially for women in STEM. She is also a former Secretary of the UConn Chapter of the Materials Research Society (MRS).

Since joining the IMS Materials Science Ph.D. program in Spring 2021, Antigoni has been working with advisor Prof. Yang Cao and his Electrical Insulation Research Center (EIRC) utilizing materials preparation and electrical engineering techniques to develop nanostructured insulation materials to protect high-voltage electric motors from high electric fields. This research bridges Materials Science with Electrical Engineering.

IMS and the EIRC congratulate Antigoni on this well-deserved honor.

Xueju “Sophie” Wang Receives 2024 ONR Young Investigator Award

Xueju "Sophie" Wang
Dr. Xueju “Sophie” Wamg

Xueju “Sophie” Wang has been awarded an Office of Naval Research (ONR) 2024 Young Investigator Award in the category Ocean Battlespace Sensing.  The Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department of ONR explores science and technology in the areas of oceanographic and meteorological observations, modeling, and prediction in the battlespace environment; submarine detection and classification (anti-submarine warfare); and mine warfare applications for detecting and neutralizing mines in both the ocean and littoral environment.

One of 24 recipients in various categories, Dr. Wang’s research, entitled A Soft Intelligent Robot for Self-digging, Multi-modal Sensing, and In Situ Marine Sediment Analysis, was recognized by the Littoral Geosciences and subcategory.  The Littoral Geosciences and Optics program supports basic and applied research for expeditionary warfare, naval special warfare, mine warfare and antisubmarine warfare in shelf, near-shore, estuarine, riverine, and riparian environments, with a particular emphasis on robust 4D prediction of environmental characteristics in denied, distant or remote environments.

Dr. Wang earned a Ph.D. from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2016.  She joined the faculty of the Materials Science and Engineering Department (MSE) in 2020 with an appointment in the Institute of Materials Science (IMS).  Since then, she has earned extensive recognition for her research including the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award in 2022; the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Trailblazer Award, also in 2022; and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Orr Early Career Award in 2021 among others.

Wang’s research focuses on soft, stimuli-responsive materials and multifunctional structures; multistability of reconfigurable, magnetically responsive structures, flexible/pressure-tolerant/bio-integrated electronics, soft robotics and intelligent systems; and in-situ/environmental operando experimental techniques.  Her research has been published extensively.

 

A Career Worth Celebrating: Dr. Challa V. Kumar

Colleagues, collaborators, family, friends, and former students gathered to celebrate the career of Dr. Challa V. Kumar
Colleagues, collaborators, family, friends, and former students gathered to celebrate the career of Dr. Challa V. Kumar

By the time registration closed for the Symposium Celebrating the Research and Education Legacy of Professor Challa V. Kumar, more than 60 delegates from around the world had registered.  The event, which also celebrated Dr. Kumar’s retirement as well as his 70th birthday, brought together colleagues, collaborators, friends, and former students of Professor Kumar eager to pay homage to him and to present research on the topic for the day, Chemical Approaches to Biological Materials and Beyond.

The full-day event opened on September 9, 2023, with continental breakfast and a welcome message from Dr. Yao Lin, professor of chemistry and Institute of Materials Science (IMS) resident faculty member. Lin also served as chair for the morning session.  IMS Director Dr. Steven L. Suib opened the symposium with remarks that set the tone for the day’s events.

The morning session commenced with Dr. Kumar’s introduction of his longtime friend, Professor and Chief Editor of Science magazine, Holden Thorp. Dr. Thorp emphasized the importance of scientists getting involved in the discussion of societal issues and policies through evidence-based facts. The discussion included science outreach to children, an important topic for all attendees.

Each presentation was preceded by a short introduction from Dr. Kumar, to which he brought a personal connection between himself and each of the presenters. Speakers for the morning session included Professor D. Ramaiah from Birla Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, India. Dr. Kumar and Dr. Ramaiah overlapped at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur before Dr. Kumar left for the United States.

Morning session speakers
Morning session presenters (l to r) Drs. Yao Lin (session chair); Dr. D. Ramaiah, Michael Purugganan, Leah Croucher, and J.K. Barton

Professor Michael Purugganan from New York University described his collaboration with Professor Kumar on DNA-mediated electron transfer at Columbia University. He presented research on the ways in which rice genes have co-evolved with humans over thousands of years, with 13,000 varieties identified so far.

Professor Leah Croucher from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a former Ph.D. student of Professor Kumar, described her path from the Kumar lab to NIH in reverse chronological order, sharing highlights of her days at UConn along the way.

The last speaker of the morning session was Professor J.K. Barton of California Institute of Technology. Dr. Barton, a recipient of the prestigious Priestly Medal, spoke on electron transfer through DNA. Dr. Barton was also a postdoctoral mentor to Professor Kumar. Her talk led to interesting discussions on the electron transport mechanism and how DNA-mediated electron transport plays an important role in DNA damage, repair, and cancer.

Afternoon session symposium speakers
Afternoon Session Speakers (l to r) Drs. Steven L. Suib, James Rusling, Ashis Basu, Rajeswari Kasi, Akhilesh Bhambhani, Ajith Pattammattel, and Anna Pyle

Following lunch, session chair Dr. Rajeswari Kasi, professor of chemistry and IMS resident faculty member, commenced the afternoon session with an introduction of IMS Director and Professor of Chemistry Dr. Steven L. Suib. Professor Suib analyzed the research trajectory of Dr. Kumar over four decades and recounted how the Kumar research group switched gears and meandered through increasingly interesting research topics, building one over the other.

Professor of Chemistry James Rusling spoke about his interactions with Professor Kumar, elaborating on joint and related projects that they often chatted about. Professor of Chemistry Ashis Basu described his research projects on DNA damage, DNA-covalent adducts of carcinogens, and the mechanisms of carcinogenesis. Professor Kasi described some of her most recent work on protein-conjugated cellulose nanocrystals, demonstrating how her work was inspired by her collaborations with Dr. Kumar.  Professor Akhilesh Bhambhani, a former Ph.D. student of Dr. Kumar, outlined the key factors for successful design, manufacturing, and deployment of biologics with humorous comparison of Dr. Kumar to the Bodha tree, which gave enlightenment to those who rested beneath it. Dr. Ajith Pattammattel, another former Ph.D. student of Dr. Kumar, elaborated on his research at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. He invited students and faculty to visit the lab to conduct collaborative advanced scattering experiments with a personal story of the instrumental role Dr. Kumar played in his success.

The penultimate talk of the symposium was given by Professor Anna Pyle, a contemporary of Dr. Kumar during her days as a graduate student at Columbia

University. Dr. Pyle described how her group is deciphering the exquisite structures of multiple states of RNA using Cryoelectron microscopy.

Dr. Challa Kumar was surrounded by family for the event. (l to r) Dr. Kumar’s wife Anupam, Dr. Kumar, his brother Srinivas, sister-in-law Manjula, nephew Sriram, and his wife Keerti

With the last word, Professor Kumar began his plenary talk by thanking his mentors, hosts, and graduate students. He elaborated on the tortuous path taken by his research group, and lessons learned, along the same lines as Professor Suib’s analysis at the beginning of the afternoon session.

The symposium concluded with a standing ovation from the audience, after Dr. Kumar explained how he came to the United States with only $21 and a Ph.D., with no friends or relatives here, and succeeded in achieving his American dream.  Truly a career worth celebrating!

Watch video of the symposium here.

MSE Welcomes Alexander Dupuy to the Department

From the Department of Materials Science & Engineering

Dr. Alexander Dupuy
Dr. Alexander Dupuy

We are excited to welcome our newest faculty member, Alexander Dupuy, who joins our department as an assistant professor this fall with an appointment to the Institute of Materials Science (IMS).

Having received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Riverside in 2016, Dupuy went on to work for the University of California, Irvine as a postdoctoral scholar and then as assistant project scientist before joining us here at UConn.

With 16 years of research experience in ceramic processing and synthesis, particularly using Spark Plasma Sintering (SPS), Dupuy makes for an exciting addition to the department. His research interests include materials related to electrifications (such as energy generation, storage/batteries, delivery, and conversion), materials for high temperature and extreme environments, and the processing, properties, and behavior of high entropy ceramics.

Dupuy previously authored 23 scientific publications. He also has significant mentorship experience, guiding 7 Ph.D. students, 11 undergraduate researchers, and 5 senior design students in their work over the past 13 years.

“I am thrilled to become a Husky,” Dupuy tells us. “The MSE department, School of Engineering, and Institute of Materials Science have made UConn a world-renowned institution for materials science scholarship and innovation. I am so pleased to be joining UConn and contributing to its important teaching and research missions.”