CBE Professor 2014 Kunesh Award Recipient

By Sydney Souder

mccutcheon_jeffrey2012_profileDr. Jeffrey McCutcheon, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is the recipient of the prestigious 2014 FRI/ John G. Kunesh Award. This award, presented by the Separations Division of AIChE, acknowledges outstanding separations scientists under the age of 40. Dr. McCutcheon received this highly competitive international award for his outstanding achievements and contributions in the field of osmotic separations. “I have long made AIChE a part of my professional network,” says McCutcheon. “And I am eager to continue that throughout my career.”

Dr. McCutcheon is a leading scholar in the development, characterization, and performance testing of novel membranes for forward osmosis applications. His substantial contributions have been recognized by the industrial community. In the past three years, he has received the Solvay Specialty Polymers Young Faculty Award, the 3M Faculty award, and the DuPont Young Professor award.

Dr. McCutcheon is the Director of the Sustainable Water and Energy Learning Laboratory (SWELL). His early work included pioneering studies on forward osmosis (FO), a salinity gradient process that uses osmotic potential for driving a desalination process. This work has since expanded to consider other osmotically driven membrane processes.

“Water is a key component of economic growth, and it is a necessary commodity to help humanity emerge from the global economic slowdown. My research seeks to reduce the cost of producing drinking quality water from saline or otherwise impaired water sources,” he says. “I am excited by revolutionary technologies that approach the challenges of desalination and water reuse in a unique and cost effective manner.”

CBE Professor Awarded Prestigious NARSAD Grant

By Sydney Souder

cho_yongku_profileDr. Yongku Cho, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has received a prestigious and highly competitive NARSAD Young Investigator Grant. Funded through the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, NARSAD grants are dedicated to research in brain and behavior disorders. The Young Investigator Grant supports promising young scientists conducting neurobiological research.

Dr. Cho’s two-year grant offers critical backing to enable him to collect pilot data for his innovative ideas. His grant will support Dr. Cho’s research group to develop a novel approach for rapid and reversible knockout of target genes. His group will research which regulated protein levels affect brain circuits. They will specifically study the mechanism of GABAA receptor dysfunction. Deficits in GABAA receptor function have been linked to multiple neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as epilepsy and schizophrenia. With his new technique, he intends to study the role of GABAA receptor interacting proteins, which may lead to therapeutic targets for such diseases.

First exposed to engineered antibodies during his graduate research at Wisconsin, Dr. Cho is now interested in manipulating these proteins to include new functions. “The broader objective of the work is to engineer antibodies with useful functionalities that they normally would not have,” says Dr. Cho.

If successful, this project could have wide applications and might connect with UConn’s interests as well. Dr. Cho foresees a potential collaboration with the Jackson laboratory for Genomic Medicine. The new laboratory at UConn’s Farmington campus seeks genomic solutions to disease, making medicine more precise and predictable. They are one of world’s leading institutes for transgenic mouse research.

“With the methods from this research, we might be able to pinpoint gene functions within such model organisms,” says Cho. For more information on Dr. Cho and his research, please visit his website.


Dr. Yu Lei Receives US Patent for Explosive Detecting Sensors

By Sydney Souder

Dr. Yu Lei, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Connecticut, received a US Patent for his explosive detection technology.

Working with Ying Wang, a former graduate student, Dr. Lei engineered a sensor that provides clear and near-instant results upon contact with explosive vapors. “We initially wanted to synthesize low-cost materials that change color almost immediately when in contact with explosives,” says Lei. The project proved successful and was recently awarded a patent entitled, “Explosives Detection Substrate and Methods of Using the Same.”

The detector senses a range of explosives, from TNT used in construction, to RDX used by the military. It reveals minute traces of explosives when exposed to UV light and viewed by the naked eye.

Lei is now expanding his detection technologies in other forms beyond vapor detection. His latest research seeks to develop a nanoporous florescent film and a fluorescent protein that can reveal explosives in aqueous solutions.

These projects acknowledge funding by the National Science Foundation, the University of Connecticut Prototype Fund, and the Department of Homeland Security. For more information on Dr. Lei and his research, please visit his website.

A Short Interview With Dr. Ioulia (Julia) Valla About Women in Engineering

Women have traditionally been underrepresented in the field of Engineering, but things are changing. Dr. Ioulia (Julia) Valla is an Assistant Research Professor in the Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Department at the University of Connecticut.

Dr. Valla has won recognition for her work on cleaner fuels while working in industry and academics and is the leader of the iKnowGreen Team. iKnowGreen at the University of Connecticut, is a place for students, teachers, and UCONN engineers to explore green energy together.

Leslie Shor Named a DuPont Young Professor

Momentum logoRepublished with permission of Momentum,

a School of Engineering electronic publication.


Dr. Leslie Shorshor caption of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering specializes in recreating very small habitats – smaller than the width of a human hair in some cases. Building from scratch a simulated habitat that might sustain up to a thousand different organisms that each need different conditions to survive is no easy trick.

But the potential payoffs can be huge – more sustainable agriculture, better ways to fight infection, or more sustainable energy production from biofuels.

One particular project in her lab prompted DuPont to name her a 2014 Young Professor. The annual program recognizes professors engaged in innovative research that addresses global challenges regarding food, energy and production. Shor, one of 10 professors to receive the appointment, will receive $75,000 over the next three years to support their research.

The project that won DuPont’s attention is the same one that won a Grand Challenges Exploration grant of $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2012.

Hunger and poverty affect 1 billion people. Population growth, changing consumption habits, and a shifting climate will only magnify the problem. So developing new ways to increase food production is crucial. To that end, Shor and other researchers in her lab hope to find a new way to increase crop yields. For this research, she teamed up with Daniel J. Gage (Molecular & Cell Biology), a microbiologist with expertise in the rhizosphere. That’s the region of soil around a plant’s roots where crucial nutrients are absorbed. Beneficial bacteria in the rhizosphere can help plants by inhibiting pathogens and producing antibiotics. The rhizosphere is also home to protozoa – a kingdom of single-celled animals with the ability to move efficiently in soil. That’s where Shor comes in, with her knowledge of artificial microbial habitats and how protozoa migrate in micro-structured environments.

With her collaborators and students, Shor seeks to increase crop yields by using protozoa to distribute bacteria along growing roots. Currently, applications of biologicals or agrichemicals are not targeted, leading to inefficiency and adverse environmental impacts. Solving one problem might lead to the creation of several more. In Shor’s lab, they’re trying to use the environment as part its own solution.

“The soil system is an incredibly complex habitat, and it’s home to organisms from all five kingdoms – plants, animals protista fungi and archae – are all present in the soil,” she said. They interact with each other, and with the air, water, organic matter and soil grains in complex ways. Typically, microbiologists will take organisms out of their natural habitat and put them into an overly simplified lab habitat.

“There’s no microstructure in those habitats, typically,” she said. “Our microhabitats are not the same thing as real soil, but they do contain some of its features. Our microhabitats offer a window into the microworld.”


Fellow of the American Chemical Society named

By: William Weir

laurencinDr. Cato T. Laurencin, a Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and designated University Professor at UCONN has been named a Fellow of the American Chemical Society.

“The scientists selected as this year’s class of ACS fellows are truly a dedicated group,” said ACS President Tom Barton, Ph.D. “Their outstanding contributions to advancing chemistry through service to the Society are many. In their quest to improve people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry, they are helping us to fulfill the vision of the American Chemical Society.”

Laurencin, an internationally recognized engineer, scientist and orthopedic surgeon, holds the titles of University Professor and Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery. He also is a Professor of Materials Sciences and Engineering, and a Professor of Biomedical Engineering. He is the director of UConn Health’s Raymond and Beverly Sackler Center for Biomedical, Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences and founding director of UConn Health’s Institute for Regenerative Engineering. He is the Chief Executive Officer of UConn’s cross-university translational institute, the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science.

“This is a great honor,” Laurencin said. “The American Chemical Society is one of our nation’s largest science organizations and has made great contributions to the field.”

Laurencin was cited for his seminal contributions in polymer science and polymer-ceramic systems applied to biology. Well-known for his groundbreaking work in biomaterials, he has patented and invented a number of breakthrough technologies. These include the L-C Ligament, the first bioengineered matrix that completely regenerates ligament tissue inside the knee. A Fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Dr. Laurencin was named one of the 100 Engineers of the Modern Era at its Centennial celebration. He is an elected member of both the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering.


Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Kristina Wagstrom

By Sydney Souder

Wagstrom CaptionProf. Kristina Wagstrom, through work in her Computational Atmospheric Chemistry and Exposure Lab, strives to improve the science and functionality of computational approaches in air pollution. Her overarching objective is to develop improved regional and global air pollution models for use by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other state agencies.

Prof. Wagstrom’s current projects here in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at UConn include tracking the global transport of particulate matter, and high resolution modeling. One of her goals is to determine the impact of particulate matter generated in different regions and continents on air pollution throughout the globe. Her research group is improving air pollution exposure estimates by coupling local and regional scale models. The overall intention is to create an efficient means of assisting policymakers in their decisions.MapCaptionWagstrom

“I want to be doing something that makes a difference in both the short and long term,” she says, “I enjoy working on projects where I can see the impact in five, six, seven years.”

Prof. Wagstrom’s outlook is strongly influenced by the Science and Technology Policy Fellowship she was engaged in directly before coming to UConn in 2013. This highly competitive fellowship, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), immerses outstanding scientists and engineers into federal policymaking to gain a stronger understanding of the intersection between science and policy.

As a fellow, Prof. Wagstrom worked at the EPA and, as a consequence, was able to observe the research grant funding process from an insider’s perspective, as well as how larger government decisions influence what science is funded and therefore carried out.

One outcome from her experience is discovering how to structure research proposals so they will be of use in future policy decision making, and how to organize a project for potential maximum impact. “There are often minor ways to change a project to make it more accessible to policymakers,” she says.

Prof. Wagstrom’s experience will undoubtedly benefit her research and contributions to the department. More information on Prof. Wagstrom’s research is available on her website here.


Research Insight: Using Light to Control Neural Activity

By Sydney Souder

Prof. Yongku Cho’s research ambition is to engineer light-activated proteins as a tool to manipulate brain circuit activity. He is currently equipping his laboratory here at UConn to build on his work recently published in Nature Methods. The research article—coauthored by Dr. Cho, his postdoctoral advisor Ed Boyden, and other colleagues—documents the group’s progress in controlling neural activity using novel light-activated ion channels.

Traditionally, optical techniques have been used to observe what is happening in biological systems.  However, researchers have recently begun using light to actively control biological processes through proteins that trigger a specific function when illuminated.

“We use light-activated ion channels naturally found in green algae, which are single-celled microorganisms, to control the electrical activity of mammalian neurons,” says Prof. Cho.

In 2003, researchers realized that green algae respond to high intensities of light using ion channels that sense blue light. The light-activated channels allow ions to flow through the cell membrane, resulting in the initiation of electrical signals called action potentials in neurons. This finding signifies that light energy can be used to trigger electric signals in specific populations of neurons.

“Until now, we were able to activate one type of neuron at a time using blue light,” Prof. Cho says, “but in the brain there are many different types of neurons, forming multiple connections. So the task was to find a way to activate multiple types of neurons independently.” By collaborating with a consortium that sequenced the RNA of over a thousand species of plants (including green algae), more than one hundred new light-activated ion channels were discovered. From these novel ion channels, the group made a breakthrough discovery of a unique ion channel that senses red light, and another that is ultra-sensitive to blue light. Using these two new ion channels, it is now possible to activate two different types of neurons independently using blue and red light.

Prof. Cho intends to extend this approach to control other types of processes in neurons.  “In plants, light-activated proteins are used for controlling a wide array of functions, such as opening a flower in response to sunlight,” he says. “I believe that we can use this approach of controlling individual components in the brain to gain insight on the root cause of brain disorders, such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.” Prof. Cho’s group will continue engineering novel proteins to further understand the brain and perhaps identify the causes of its disorders.


Research Insight: Biomass Pyrolysis

Photo of Prof. Julia Valla, Mr. Shoucheng Du, and Prof. George BollasMr. Shoucheng Du, Prof. Julia Valla, and Prof. George Bollas are making exciting progress in developing the process of biomass catalytic pyrolysis. Their recent achievements are published in Green Chemistry (link to article), and were presented at the 2013 Spring Meeting of the American Chemical Society (link to presentation).

Biomass pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of solid biomass into a liquid, which after additional processing, can be employed in the manufacture of chemicals, fuels, and other products normally made from petroleum.

According to Mr. Du, a Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) graduate student, biomass pyrolysis is one of the process options most likely to solve the challenge of renewable fuels. “We let nature and photosynthesis develop biomass, such as plants and trees, from carbon dioxide in the air,” Mr. Du says, “then our work focuses on upgrading the value of that natural product, lignocellulosic biomass, into liquid bio-oil, which can then be upgraded by a catalyst into liquid products of more value to society.”

“The challenge,” says Prof. Bollas, “is that the byproducts of pyrolysis, coke and char, deactivate the catalyst by coating the surface. Hence, the most important objective is to first identify the exact amounts of coke (a catalytic product) and char (the thermal byproduct of pyrolysis) that lead to deactivation, which will further our understanding of the reaction mechanisms.”bollaspic2

Prof. Valla is studying the related issue of tar, a thick viscous form of the liquid bio-oil. “When we focus on biomass tar, the challenge is even greater. Coke dominates the product distribution and it would be invaluable to understand how it is formed,” she comments.

By studying the reactions likely to lead to coke and char, and the properties of the catalyst used (Figure 1), Prof. Bollas’ group was able to identify hemicellulose as a dominant coke precursor, separate the pathways that lead to the formation of coke and char, and propose possible reactions to minimize the deactivation of the catalyst.

“Now the challenge is to connect these findings to the production of the useful liquid product,” Prof. Bollas says. “We believe the same precursors produce the most desired and most undesired products.” In the future, Prof. Bollas and his team will continue to study these reactions further, to perhaps determine a method to control their negative side effects.

REU Student Innovators Wow Business Community

Screen shot 2013-06-26 at 1.29.22 PMRepublished with permission of Momentum,
a School of Engineering electronic publication.


The Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program provides undergraduates with exposure to a stimulating research environment.  The students participating in the REU program had the opportunity to present their work during the July 26 Innovation Connection academic/industry networking event hosted at Nerac in Tolland and co-sponsored by Nerac and OpenSky. Nerac president Kevin Bouley, who hosts a number of UConn start-ups in his Tolland facility, noted “This event showcases the collaborations between students, faculty and the private sector.  It was very interesting to see RPM Sustainable Technologies participate, given that they are located in the Nerac building as a launching pad for their commercial enterprise.”

Before an audience of entrepreneurs, small business gurus, state government officials, IP experts, faculty and members of the investment community, each young researcher/entrepreneur delivered a two-minute “elevator pitch” presentation of his/her work and then spoke in greater detail with attendees during the informal networking event.  The forum enabled the students to test their mettle in the real-world situation faced by entrepreneurs every day.

While all REU programs entail scholarly research, this innovation-oriented REU requires the students to participate in a business and entrepreneurship seminar taught by professor Richard Dino of the School of Business. Furthermore, the students’ research was co-sponsored by commercial businesses – a novel twist that underscores the commercial intent of the research challenges they addressed while working in the UConn faculty laboratories.

The REU theme was conceptualized by Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon, assistant professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence Robin Bienemann, and NSF began funding the project in 2012.  In his introductory remarks to the audience, Dr. McCutcheon explained the genesis of the Innovation REU and noted that his goal was to “introduce the students to applied science and the way products make it to market.”

The eight innovation REU students and their projects are summarized below.

reu15-300x220Joseph Amato (Univ. of Minnesota – Twin Cities) researched reactive spray deposition technology for the one-step production of catalysts and electrodes in fuel cells. His research aim was to improve the efficiency of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells for the fuel cell and fuel-cell automotive markets. Sponsor: Proton OnSite; faculty mentor: Dr. Radenka Maric (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Isaac Batty (California State Univ. – Long Beach) researched bio-oil production from the fast catalytic pyrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass (trees).  His objective was to investigate the effect of temperature and various catalyst/biomass ratios on the quality of bio-oil produced from biomass. Sponsor: W.R. Grace & Co.; faculty mentor: Dr. George Bollas (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Ryan Carpenter (Univ. of Buffalo)designed an experimental apparatus enabling researchers to observe the antimicrobial susceptibility of multispecies biofilms. Biofilms are common (e.g., dental plaques) and often contain multiple species of bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Biofilms are a costly problem for many industries, including food processing, oil recovery and medical implant operations.  Sponsor: BASF; faculty mentor: Dr. Leslie Shor (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

William Hale (UConn) sought to understand whether acetate and butyrate influence the anaerobic fermentation of waste glycerol – a byproduct from biodiesel production – into 1,3-propanediol. 1,3-propanediol is used in the manufacture of polyesters, solvents, lubricants and other products. Sponsor: RPM Sustainable Technologies; faculty advisor: Dr. Richard Parnas (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Justine Jesse (Univ. of Massachusetts) researched heat treatments that produce the strongest possible electrospun nanofibers, used in water filtration and industrial plants, without compromising performance. Sponsor: KX Technologies; faculty mentor: Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Kyle Karinshak (Univ. of Oklahoma) researched the photocatalytic degradation of a specific fluorescent dye in aqueous environments through the use of a titanium oxide/metal doped catalyst. Kyle found titanium oxide/metal-doped fly ash to be an effective catalyst enabling the degradation of the dye, which is released from textile plants and inhibits the passage of sunlight through water/ Sponsor: VeruTEK Corp.; faculty mentor: Dr. Steven Suib (Chemistry; Institute for Materials Science). Poster.

Zachariah Rueger (Iowa State Univ.) sought to maximize the specific surface area of activated carbon nanofiber nonwoven mats, which are used in water purification and for electricity generation in certain fuel cells. A greater surface area allows greater volumes of wastewater to be purified quickly. Sponsor: KX Technologies; faculty mentor: Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.

Kyle Stachowiak (Vanderbilt Univ.) researched techniques to optimize the atomic layer deposition of copper on a component, the rectenna, used to enhance the performance of solar cells. A rectenna collects solar radiation and converts it to usable energy. Techniques for applying copper more reliably will improve the efficiency of solar cells. Sponsor: Scitech Associates LLC; faculty mentor: Dr. Brian Willis (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering). Poster.