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Four faculty receive CAREER awards

By CORY NEALON and CHARLOTTE HSU

Published December 5, 2013

Four UB researchers have received the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award, demonstrating how some of the university's newest faculty members are already making valuable contributions to UB’s mission of advancing scientific knowledge.

The CAREER award is one of the NSF’s most prestigious awards for junior investigators. It comes with significant funding for carrying out research and education activities.

“Over the past several years, as we’ve worked toward the goals outlined in UB 2020, UB has hired many outstanding junior researchers,” says Alexander N. Cartwright, vice president for research and economic development.

“The recognition that so many of these new faculty members are receiving CAREER awards from the National Science Foundation is evidence of the value they are bringing to our university and the Buffalo Niagara community,” he adds. “The CAREER award is given to some of the nation’s most promising early-career investigators, and gives them resources to grow their research programs.”

The four new CAREER recipients at UB, each of whom received the award in 2013, include an engineer studying how to improve drug-delivery methods and a chemist whose work could lead to new ways of disrupting harmful biochemical reactions. Their CAREER grants range in size from $400,000 to $550,000.

Tommaso Melodia

Tommaso Melodia

UB’s new CAREER awardees, the amounts of their awards and their research topics are:

  • Tommaso Melodia, associate professor of electrical engineering, $449,000, Ultrasonic networks for implantable biomedical devices.

The military has for decades used sonar for underwater communication. Melodia is developing a miniaturized version of the same technology to be applied inside the human body to treat diseases such as diabetes and heart failure in real time.

The advancement relies on sensors that use ultrasound — the same inaudible sound waves used by the navy for sonar and doctors for sonograms — to wirelessly share information between medical devices implanted in or worn by people.

Because roughly 65 percent of the body is composed of water, ultrasound may be a more efficient way to share information than the current practice of using radio waves. Medical devices, such as a pacemaker and an instrument that measures blood oxygen levels, may communicate more effectively via ultrasound than radio waves.

Andrew Murkin

Andrew Murkin

  • Andrew Murkin, assistant professor of chemistry, $550,000, Enzyme-catalyzed reactions — and how to stop them.

In all living things, specialized proteins called enzymes speed up chemical reactions critical to life. At a point in each reaction called the transition state, the materials undergoing transformation become extremely unstable, and enzymes jump in to provide stability and allow the reaction to reach its conclusion at acceptable rates.

Murkin will use his CAREER award to develop new techniques for studying the transition state. Knowing more about its characteristics will allow scientists to stop harmful reactions, such as those linked to cancer or infectious diseases, by designing molecules that mimic the transition state. These mimics trick the enzyme into latching onto them instead of helping the undesired reaction proceed. By disrupting important chemical reactions, transition state inhibitors could kill disease-causing bacteria.

David Salac

David Salac

  • David Salac, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, $401,192, Electrohydrodynamics of vesicles.

Vesicles are small, fluid-filled structures that mimic simple biological cells, such as red blood cells. Salac is using his CAREER award to study how single- and multi-component vesicles react to the combined effects of fluid flow and electric fields. Electric fields have been shown to change not only the shape of vesicles, but also the permeability of the vesicle membrane.

This knowledge will advance the development of vesicle-based biotechnologies, such as directed drug delivery and pico-scale bioreactors. This research also will provide knowledge about the mechanics of red blood cells and other non-nucleated biological cells.

Gesualdo Scutari

Gesualdo Scutari

  • Gesualdo Scutari, assistant professor of electrical engineering, $400,000, Developing a new paradigm for cognitive network layering.

Complex networks are everywhere. Examples include biological networks, such as the nervous system; infrastructure, such as power grids; and communication networks like the Internet.

The common theme is that individual pieces, or nodes, interact with each other to form a network capable of complex tasks. Scutari will use his CAREER award to develop a unified framework for the analysis and design of complex networks with no centralized control. Examples of this kind of behavior are schools of fish or flocks of birds.

The research could help improve everything from power grids to cell phone networks.