SU garners $3 million NSF grant for education and research in soft and biological materials

The grant will be catalyst for collaborative research across the campus

Sep 15, 2011 | Article by: Judy Holmes

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Syracuse University $3 million over the next five years to develop an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training Program (IGERT) in Soft Interfaces.  IGERT is the NSF’s flagship interdisciplinary program to educate Ph.D.-level scientists and engineers to reach across traditional fields of study in their research. Since 1998, the highly competitive IGERT program has made 215 awards to over 100 leading universities in 41 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

SU’s IGERT Program in Soft Interfaces is a collaborative effort of The College of Arts and Sciences and the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science and will take advantage of expertise from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

A hallmark feature of the program is the intent to leverage the resources of the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute (SBI), a cutting-edged research facility to which most of the project’s participants belong. Graduate students will benefit by taking advantage of the SBI’s centrally located laboratory and workspaces in Bowne Hall, which will provide unity to the program.

Soft interfaces is a relatively new area of research that melds physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering to study complex soft and biological materials and how such materials interact with each other and hard matter.  These interactions play a fundamental role in the development of new materials and technologies used in pharmaceuticals, biomedicine, energy, communications, and other industries.

“The IGERT funding provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to establish a novel program to train scientists and engineers in a highly interdisciplinary field that is at the leading edge of modern research,” says George M. Langford, dean of The College of Arts and Sciences. “Our IGERT Fellows will work closely with scientists from both colleges who have made significant advances in the area of soft materials and interfaces and who have garnered national recognition their research.”

In addition to working in the laboratory, IGERT Fellows will develop skills in applying their research to real-world situations and communicating the results to the public and policy makers. “Our partnerships with local companies and organizations, such as the Syracuse Center of Excellence and Blue Highway, and the program’s emphasis on technology transfer will generate scientists with necessary skills to bridge the gaps between academia, industry, and the public,” says Laura J. Steinberg, dean of the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Research in soft materials at SU spans several departments and programs, including the departments of physics, chemistry, biology, and biomedical and chemical engineering. Graduate students who receive an IGERT Fellowship must be accepted into one of these departments and agree to focus their research in one of three areas: biological membranes, biomaterials interfaces, or nanostructured interfaces.

In addition to traditional coursework, IGERT Fellows will complete a set of interdisciplinary courses in the areas of quantitative cell biology, interfaces, and critical analyses of scientific literature in areas outside of their primary interests. IGERT Fellows will also complete courses in science communication and science policy from the Newhouse and Maxwell schools.

“The program will promote collaborative research across traditional disciplines, as IGERT students will work on joint projects with faculty from different departments.” says Cristina Marchetti, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of physics in The College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator on the SU’s IGERT grant. “These collaborations will strengthen and unify current research efforts and drive a permanent change in graduate education at SU.”

Co-principal investigators are Patrick Mather, the Milton and Ann Stevenson Professor of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering and director of the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute; Alan Middleton, professor of physics; Dacheng Ren, assistant professor and coordinator of the chemical engineering graduate program; and Karin Ruhlandt-Senge, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry.

“We are all excited to embark on the proposed research projects in soft interfaces,” says Mather. “We will be exploring much uncharted territory that will undoubtedly lead to discoveries. Even more, we look forward to recruiting and growing bright minds as our IGERT trainees. The significance of this achievement cannot be understated; I believe it will be the catalyst for many collaborative projects across our campus in the future.”

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