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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Program to form new insight on the brain, expand participation in field of brain science

The National Science Foundation recently granted the University of Illinois $3 million for an interdisciplinary graduate student training program to help form new insight on the brain—and to expand participation in the field of brain science itself.

Sixty graduate students from across campus will participate in the five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Traineeship, led by Martha Gillette, professor of cell and developmental biology and director of the Neuroscience Program. Hyunjoon Kong, professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, is the lead co-principal investigator.

The project’s primary goal is to provide students with an immersive research experience that blends techniques from multiple disciplines to better understand the many aspects of the human body’s most complex organ.

The program will teach students to use and understand miniature brain machinery critical to examining and regulating brain activities. It’s also designed to increase the participation of women, underrepresented minorities, and students with disabilities in the field of brain science.

A third goal is to improve scientists’ communication skills with the public.

Kong and Gillette
Martha Gillette and Hyunjoon Kong

“This is a training initiative between neuroscience and engineering. It’s building on some of the new technologies in engineering, but it’s focused on better understanding the brain,” Gillette said. “It’s exciting because it’s going to let us do new things and train graduate students in new ways.”

Students will come from several departments across campus, including neuroscience, cell and developmental biology, molecular and integrative physiology, chemistry, psychology, chemical and biomolecular engineering, bioengineering, and electrical and computer engineering.

The training program will bridge two research paradigms about the brain: cognitive and behavioral studies, including the use of bioimaging and computational tools to understand adaptation, decision-making, psychology, and learning of an individual; and cell and tissue studies, with a focus on altering cell activity through a variety of methods.

To meet these goals, the program will guide graduate students through specialized courses to broaden their knowledge beyond their own specific fields. Training courses will address behavior and the development of the nervous system as well as engineering, biological, and psychological perspectives on how brain activity can be modified.

Bashir Cohen Sweedler
From left: Rashid Bashir, Neal Cohen, Jonathan Sweedler

The U of I project was one of only three proposals aimed at understanding the brain selected for this particular NSF project, out of a large national competition. Co-directors on the project include Rashid Bashir, professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering and head of the Department of Bioengineering; Neal Cohen, professor of psychology; and Jonathan Sweedler, professor of chemistry.

Students also will have opportunities to visit and work with the laboratories of international partners, including the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology of A*STAR (Singapore), the Biomedical Research Institute of the Korean Institute of Science and Technology (S. Korea), the University of Tokyo (Japan), the University of Okayama (Japan), the University of Birmingham (U.K.), and the Johannes Gutenberg-University at Mainz (Germany).

While the funding mainly contributes to a training program for graduate students, the project also has a research component.  Gillette expects the project to advance a relatively new field of study regarding how, through cross-talking, groups of cells behave differently than the entity that they’re part of.

“The idea of using these self-organizing neuron preparations is new,” Gillette said. “It’s new enough that over the five years of the grant and training period, it will really develop a lot, especially with the technologies we have.”

The U of I’s interdisciplinary approach fits with the NSF’s focus for the training program.

“Integration of research and education through interdisciplinary training will prepare a workforce that undertakes scientific challenges in innovative ways,” said Dean Evasius, director of the NSF Division of Graduate Education. “The NSF Research Traineeship awards will ensure that today’s graduate students are prepared to pursue cutting-edge research and solve the complex problems of tomorrow.”

By Samantha Jones Toal, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) has announced the pending induction of Dr. Hyunjoon Kong, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering to its College of Fellows.

Dr. Kong was nominated, reviewed, and elected by peers and members of the College of Fellows for outstanding contributions to the fields of biomaterials, bioimaging contrast agents and tissue engineering.

Hyunjoon (Joon) Kong - professor, chemical and bimolecular engineering
Hyunjoon (Joon) Kong

The College of Fellows is comprised of the top two percent of medical and biological engineers in the country. The most accomplished and distinguished engineering and medical school chairs, research directors, professors, innovators, and successful entrepreneurs, comprise the College of Fellows.

Kong is also Professor of Pathobiology and interim director of the Bioengineering graduate program. He is a core member of the Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering theme at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. He is also affiliated with the Neuroscience program and the Center for Biophysics and Quantitative Biology at the University of Illinois.

Kong’s research focuses on the synthesis, characterization, and processing of nanobiomaterials for diagnostic imaging and molecular/cell therapies of wounds and vascular diseases and regeneration of neuromuscular interface. He joined the Illinois faculty in 2007. He was featured in the recent issue of Mass Transfer, our magazine for alumni and friends.

A formal induction ceremony will be held during AIMBE’s 2017 Annual Meeting at the National Academy of Sciences Great Hall in Washington, DC on March 20, 2017. Dr. Kong will be inducted along with 145 colleagues who make up the AIMBE College of Fellows Class of 2017.

AIMBE’s mission is to recognize excellence in, and advocate for, the fields of medical and biological engineering in order to advance society. Since 1991, AIMBE‘s College of Fellows has lead the way for technological growth and advancement in the fields of medical and biological engineering. Fellows have helped revolutionize medicine and related fields in order to enhance and extend the lives of people all over the world. They have also successfully advocated for public policies that have enabled researchers and business-makers to further the interests of engineers, teachers, scientists, clinical practitioners, and ultimately, patients.

AIMBE Fellows are regularly recognized for their contributions in teaching, research, and innovation. AIMBE Fellows have been awarded the Presidential Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Technology and Innovation and many also are members of the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences.

By studying the behavior of living cells and combining them with synthetic tissue, an interdisciplinary group of researchers is creating “biological machines” to deliver drugs more effectively, function as internal diagnostic tools or serve as contaminant sensors in the field.

This work is facilitated by a multi-institution effort known as the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems, which recently received $25 million in National Science Foundation renewal funding for the next five years to build living, multicellular machines to solve environmental, health and security problems. Hyunjoon Kong, Associate Professor and Centennial Scholar in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is among the researchers working on the project.

The EBICS project is unique in that both the funding and management are shared equally by the primary participants, which include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Georgia Institute of Technology and lead institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eight other institutions also provide research assistance.

Members of the EBICS team, left to right: Gabriel Popescu, UI professor of electrical and computer engineering; Hyunjoon Kong, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Martha Gillette, UI professor of cell and developmental biology; Taher Saif, UI professor of mechanical science and engineering; EBICS Director Roger Kamm of MIT; Rashid Bashir, UI professor and head of the department of bioengineering; program coordinator Carrie Kouadio, a visiting program coordinator in the Micro and Nanotechnology Lab. Photo by Gregory Pluta
Members of the EBICS team, left to right: Gabriel Popescu, UI professor of electrical and computer engineering; Hyunjoon Kong, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Martha Gillette, UI professor of cell and developmental biology; Taher Saif, UI professor of mechanical science and engineering; EBICS Director Roger Kamm of MIT; Rashid Bashir, UI professor and head of the department of bioengineering; program coordinator Carrie Kouadio, a visiting program coordinator in the Micro and Nanotechnology Lab. Photo by Gregory Pluta

According to Rashid Bashir, EBICS co-principal investigator and head of the department of bioengineering at Illinois, the goal of the project is to build non-natural functions with cells. “Take vascular disease, for example,” Bashir said. “One could approach the problem from the standpoint of, ‘What if we could take passive vascular cells and combine them with cardiac muscle cells to create vascular tissue that could pump?’ Such devices would allow patients’ own bodies to become part of the solution.” The group’s efforts aren’t limited to improving human health. “We’re also interested in building living machines that can do things like sense toxins in water and potentially neutralize them,” he said.

In the first phase of the project, the researchers examined the behaviors of muscle, neuronal and vascular cells. Although much is known about how these cells function, little was known about integrating them.

“We needed to learn how to grow diverse cells together, as each has its own ideal growing conditions,” Bashir said. “We also needed to learn how to get them to communicate with each other.”

Developing so-called biobots takes a wide range of expertise. Bashir is joined on the U. of I. EBICS team by professors Martha Gillette, of cell and developmental biology, Hyunjoon Kong, of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Gabriel Popescu, of electrical and computer engineering, and Taher Saif, of mechanical science and engineering.

Gillette’s group develops neuronal circuits to provide sensing and processing. Kong develops new scaffolds and biomaterials to “house” the cells and the machines. And Popescu develops new imaging techniques to visualize and study the emergent behavior of living cells over time.

Saif’s group developed one- and two-dimensional swimming bots whose locomotion tissue is made from soft polymers and 10-micron-thick films. These millimeter-scale “swimmers” can propel themselves in one direction using the force generated by heart muscle cells. According to Saif, this research could pave the way for internal diagnostics that are more accurate than poking or prodding, or they can be developed to deliver drugs to treat disease.

For another biobot, the researchers randomly placed rat heart muscle cells on a layer of soft plastic hydrogel that they designed and printed with a 3-D printer. The natural contracting and relaxing of the cells allowed the bot to pull itself along or “walk” in culture medium.

Another “walking” device relies on skeletal muscle cells. It responds and moves on command to electric fields. Most recently, the team has been working with muscle cells that can be controlled remotely by blue light and could be the key to developing new remotely controlled tissues and systems.

Another major component of the center is the ethical context of the ongoing and future research. Former U. of I. professor of education Lizanne DeStefano, who currently heads Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing, coordinated the team that is developing ethics modules to ensure faculty members and students are always cognizant of the ethical implications of their work.

Written by freelance writer Anna Barnes and Susan McKenna, the associate director of communications in the bioengineering department.

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