Science foundation awards two research teams $1.5 million

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The National Science Foundation has awarded two research teams in the School of Engineering and Applied Science almost $1.5 million to continue bionanotechnology and molecule interaction research.

Professor Rahul Simha and his colleagues, professors Chen Zeng and Yongwu Rong, will receive almost $1.2 million over the next four years from the NSF for their proposal, “Understanding Complex Biological Networks: A Process View Point.”

Professors Ryan Vallance, Youngsheng Leng, Baoxia Mi, Mona Zaghloul and Jonathan Silver were awarded a two-year, $200,000 Nano Undergraduate Engineering grant, which hopes to incorporate bionanotechnology – a branch of science combining biology and nanotechnology – into the engineering curriculum.

According to Simha, the $1.2 million grant, awarded to the University’s Institute for Biomolecular Networks, is a joint grant across the physics, mathematics and computer science departments. He said part of the grant money will be use to fund student involvement his research.

“Unlike many science grants, this one [needs no] budget for equipment,” Simha said in an e-mail. “Pen, paper, computers (and thinking caps!) are all we need. Thus, most of the budget will go towards people” including doctorate and undergraduate students.

Research at the Institute for Biomolecular Networks focuses on a more thorough understanding of nature through the study of fundamental design principles. The grant will boost the research group’s interest in the network of interactions among molecules in a cell, something Simha compares to the popular social networking site, Facebook.

“You are probably familiar with the term ‘social network’ as seen on sites like Facebook, where ‘links’ indicate a relationship between two individuals. We are interested in the types of networks that represent the interactions between biomolecules in a typical living cell,” Simha said. “Part of the problem is figuring out the likely network structure using biological data, a problem that might be described as follows: if you saw the pattern of lights blinking (biological data) on a Christmas tree, could you figure out the wiring (network structure)? We have developed an approach to do this using mathematical logic.”

The Nano Undergraduate Engineering grant will fund a program that prepares engineering undergraduates for careers and graduate studies in biological nanotechnology.

According to Vallance, the grant will help SEAS offer educational experiences related to nanotechnology, especially biological nanotechnology to students. Six new courses and a set of ten laboratory experiments to supplement existing courses will be funded by the grant.

“In addition to providing innovative educational content to SEAS undergraduate students, we hope to learn more about how to incorporate biological nanotechnology into more traditional engineering curricula,” Vallance, said in an e-mail. “Graduates of traditional engineering disciplines will likely need to know more about biology and chemistry in order to engineer new products and systems for the future.”

Money from the grant is already helping students explore biological nanotechnology in the classroom. Silver was able to teach a new interdisciplinary course this semester because of the grant. The courses combine molecular biology with traditionally non-biological science and engineering, Silver said.

“Molecular biology provides wonderful materials such as DNA and motor proteins that can be synthesized and engineered biochemically, while physics and engineering provide tools such as laser traps and atomic force microscopes that can measure phenomena and manipulate objects on the scale of these molecules (typically, a few nanometers),” Silver said.

“With support from the NUE grant, we hope to convey some of the excitement of this field and perhaps attract new students to it.”

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