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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Congratulations to postdoctoral fellow Lydia Kisley, who was featured in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List for 2017.

The annual list highlights innovators who are under 30 years old and work in a variety of different industries, from media to manufacturing. Kisley was included on the healthcare list.

Lydia Kisley.2016.2
Dr. Lydia Kisley, Beckman-Brown Interdisciplinary Postdoctoral Fellow

Kisley, 28, is a Beckman-Brown Interdisciplinary Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Illinois. She works with several researchers on campus, including Deborah Leckband, Reid T. Milner Professor of Chemical Sciences; Martin Gruebele, James R. Eiszner Chair in Chemistry and Chemistry Department Head; and Paul Braun, Ivan Racheff Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.

With her research she aims to “inspire and design materials and biomaterials in smarter ways by using unique microscopy in order to understand them better.”

Kisley received her PhD in Chemistry in 2015 from Rice University. Her bachelor’s degree is from Wittenberg University in Ohio.

Since arriving at Illinois in 2015, she has worked with polymers and hydrogels, studying how proteins fold at the surface of a polymer brush (polymer chains grafted to a surface) or within a hydrogel, and observing how stable the proteins are and how they function. Her research has applications in biotechnology, particularly in biosensors, and development of medical devices.

As a graduate student at Rice, she explored ways to purify and separate drug molecules, with the goal of improving efficiency in pharmaceutical manufacturing. She and her fellow researchers also observed blood serum proteins combining with gold nanoparticles, prompting them to aggregate, a finding that has implications for nanoparticle toxicity issues. Gold nanoparticles have been used in some cancer treatments.

In addition to her research work, she has been involved in a number of outreach activities with organizations such as the Girl Scouts of Central Illinois and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Kisley intends to pursue a career in academia and to establish a research lab at a university where she can combine the skills she is learning at Illinois in understanding protein folding and surfaces and materials with skills she developed while pursuing her PhD, which entailed research at the single molecule level.

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor Deborah Leckband and Chemistry Professor Martin Gruebele received a National Science Foundation award to develop new experimental methodology for determining how material properties at the nanoscale preserve or shut down the function of immobilized proteins.

Deborah E. Leckband, Reid T. Milner Professor
Deborah E. Leckband, Reid T. Milner Professor

Leckband is the Reid T. Milner Professor of Chemical Sciences and Martin Gruebele is the James R. Eiszner Endowed Chair in Chemistry. The title of the grant is “Microenvironments Fit for Proteins.”

Proteins are coupled to synthetic materials in a wide range of applications from targeted drug delivery to sensors. Leckband and Gruebele will develop novel experimental approaches that identify nanoscale design rules for materials that preserve immobilized proteins.


Reid T. Milner Professor Deborah Leckband has been elected to the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) Class of 2014 Fellows.

Professor Deborah Leckband
Professor Deborah Leckband

Fellow status is awarded to members who demonstrate exceptional achievements and experience in the field of biomedical engineering, and a record of membership and participation in the Society. Public recognition of Professor Leckband and the Class of 2014 Fellows will be held during the BMES Annual Meeting, October 22-25, 2014, in San Antonio, Texas.

Professor Leckband was recognized for her research in two principal areas: she carries out studies of how mechanical and biochemical signals are transduced across cell membranes to regulate cell and tissue functions through simulations, single molecule studies, and biomechanical studies of proteins, cells, and tissues. She also studies fundamental molecular forces and their roles in a range of applications in biotechnology, from drug delivery to biosensors to adhesion. She has published more than 120 scientific articles.

Professor Leckband has received numerous other awards for her research, including a FIRST Award of the National Institute of Health and a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. She is a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Chemical Society. She has won the Xerox Award for Faculty Research from the College of Engineering and the Helen Corley Petit Scholar from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois; she is also a University Scholar and has been a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies.

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor Deborah Leckband and her team of researchers have focused on a class of proteins used by cells to grip onto their neighbors, but with that research, they discovered that the connections between cells within tissues also sense forces.

Professor Deborah Leckband
Deborah Leckband

“Because adhesions between cells are essential for holding our tissues together, this cell-to-cell force sensing may be critical for regulating a wide range of cell behavior such as cell organization during embryonic development, wound healing, or lung tissues responses to pressure changes during breathing,” Leckband said.

“We are taught since high school biology that cells “smell” soluble molecules in their environment,” she said. “But we now also know that cells “feel” with force-sensing proteins on cell surfaces. This allows cells to feel how soft or hard the surrounding tissue is or to respond to changes in pressure in the lungs, for example.”

Leckband’s initial findings on this topic were published in 2010. But findings in their most recent paper reveal how the force sensing nanomachine at adhesion sites between cells converts mechanical information into biochemical signals that alter cell functions, Leckband said.

These latest findings were published recently in a paper titled “α-Catenin cytomechanics: role in cadherin-dependent adhesion and mechanotransduction” and were featured in the April 15 “In This Issue” section of the Journal of Cell Science.


Deborah Leckband, Milner Professor at Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois, has been elected to the Biomedical Engineering Society’s Board of Directors.

Milner Professor Deborah Leckband
Milner Professor Deborah Leckband

“I have very high respect for my peers in the Society,” Leckband said. “Their demonstration of confidence in my experience and vision for the Society, by electing me to the Board of Directors, is a tremendous honor.”

Leckband’s term begins at the society’s annual meeting on September 28.


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