By Sydney Souder
Dr. Kelly Burke is excited by the multidisciplinary challenges of developing bio-derived polymers and stimuli-responsive materials in her lab. An assistant professor in the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, her work encompasses elements of medicine, biology, chemistry, tissue engineering and materials science. As a key member of the Polymer Program in the Institute of Materials Science, she is well-poised to develop a program that answers her fundamental research questions.
In her words, Dr. Burke’s work is a marriage between her graduate and post-doctoral projects. During her graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, she studied polymer synthesis and characterization. She then delved into the world of silk materials as an NIH postdoctoral fellow at Tufts.
“Typically, we think of silk as a means of creating fabrics or sutures. However, it is possible to chemically modify the proteins in silk materials to alter their functionality.” To this end, she is using her breadth of experience to create stimuli-responsive biomaterials from silk.
Dr. Burke’s goal is to manipulate silk polymers so that human cells respond to her materials. Specifically, she aims for her materials to moderate inflammation and promote healing. This could be invaluable for people with chronic diseases that impede healing, such as diabetes. Most existing wound materials are passive and only protect the area from bacteria and dirt. Dr. Burke seeks to create an interactive material that controls cells and encourages healing. Natural silkworm material is not recognized by the body, so the challenge is to ensure they respond to the chronically-inflamed environments.
“In many ways, being on the faculty at UConn is like coming home,” Dr. Burke says. An alumna who earned her B.S. in chemical engineering in 2005, she knows the people and the campus, including her favorite dairy bar ice cream flavor (Coffee Expresso Crunch).
With tremendous support from Connecticut state initiatives like Next Generation Connecticut, Tech Park, and Bioscience Connecticut, Dr. Burke says with a smile, “It’s an exciting time to be at UConn.”