Three UCLA Engineering Faculty Win National Science Foundation 2008 Faculty Early Career Development Awards

By Wileen Wong Kromhout

Three faculty members at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have won the highly competitive and prestigious National Science Foundation’s 2008 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. The award, among the highest of honors for young faculty, recognizes the dual commitment of scholarship and education. The three this year are now among 18 UCLA Engineering faculty who have won CAREER awards in the past five years.

Tatiana Segura, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Eric Pei-Yu Chiou and William Klug, both assistant professors of mechanical and aerospace engineering each received $400,000 in funding for support of their research over a five-year period.

Segura will design “Hydrogels for Matrix-Tethered Gene Delivery.” Chiou will develop a “Massively Parallel Light-Driven Droplet Manipulation Platform for Large Scale Multiplexed Single Cell Analysis,” and Klug will look at “Membrane-Protein Interactions and the Mechanics of Cell Organelles.”

“We are extraordinarily pleased that Tatiana, Eric and Bill were honored this year by the National Science Foundation,” said Vijay K. Dhir, dean of the school. “We take great pride in our young faculty and in knowing that the research these three are conducting could one day lead to the enhanced treatment of diseases for the medical community.”

Using a matrix tethered gene delivery approach, Segura will focus on engineering DNA containing hydrogel materials that have specific mechanical properties, bio-adhesive properties and degradation rates to allow for cellular infiltration and achieve temporally controlled gene transfer. These genes would allow the cell itself to produce specific proteins needed at specific stages to aid in the formation and replacement of functional tissue and allow for the treatment of hard to heal wounds like ulcers or those found in diabetic patients.

Regulated delivery of multiple bioactive signals has a broad impact on biomedical and bioengineering research because it will provide tools to investigate how multiple bioactive factors act in concert in a particular system and help to determine what particular combinations and release dynamics results in a desired effect.

Chiou will design and fabricate a device based on a novel floating electrode optoelectronic tweezers (FEOET) mechanism that allows for the use of direct optical images to control liquid droplets suspended in an oil environment. The oil is required to prevent the droplets from mixing with other chemicals. Currently, technologies exist that allow for droplets to be released at a very high speed, about 10,000 droplets per second. But there is no technology capable for controlling such a large number of droplets individually and in parallel for the purpose of analysis.

The FEOET platform is potentially capable of preparing one million different, multiplexed drug combinations in less than two hours. This type of technology will help researchers to test individual cell responses to different combinations of drugs on a massive scale. Due to the capability of using low-cost materials, this super drug screening device could dramatically reduce the fabrication cost of large-scale lab-on-a-chip systems. Medical and pharmaceutical labs could eventually use this type of technology to more efficiently and effectively find the right combination of drugs to fight diseases like cancer.

Building a theoretical framework for the exploration of the effects of transmembrane protein interactions on the formation and stability of membrane structures in cell organelles is Klug’s goal. His research aims to understand the physical forces that maintain the structures of membranes in cell organelles, in particular endoplasmic reticula, Golgi apparatus, and mitochondria.

One question Klug’s research hopes to address is whether the proteins that are so densely packed into organelle membranes actually are responsible in some way for producing the complex membrane structure or if the membrane simply provides a nice home for the proteins. Recent experiments have shown that changing the proteins can lead to whole-scale rearrangements of the membrane, suggesting that the protein molecules can act like a kind of “glue” that holds the membrane together in certain geometric patterns.

The results of the study may ultimately enable new medical techniques and treatment of diseases related to organelle function, including viral infections, diabetes, tumor growths, and neurodegenerative diseases.

The CAREER award also contains a strong educational component. All three will incorporate their research activities into their teaching curriculum for undergraduate and graduate students. Summer outreach programs for underrepresented students of various grade levels from Los Angeles area schools and community colleges will also be developed.

The three 2008 CAREER awards follow 15 awards garnered by UCLA Engineering faculty over the past five years – one from bioengineering, three from electrical engineering, four from mechanical and aerospace engineering, three from chemical and biomolecular engineering, three from civil and environmental engineering and four from computer science.

Main Image: Segura, Klug, and Chiou.