Four Engineering Professors Honored

Four Engineering Professors Honored

Professors Chen, Day, Pochan and Wang recognized for excellence in medical and biological engineering

Four faculty members from the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering have been recognized by the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) as members of the organization’s 2022 College of Fellows.

Gore Professor of Chemical Engineering Wilfred Chen, Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Emily Day, Department of Materials Science and Engineering Chair and Professor Darrin Pochan and Mechanical Engineering Professor Liyun Wang join 149 other fellows recognized this year by the AIMBE for “distinguished and continuing achievements in medical and biological engineering.”

“The election of four College of Engineering faculty members as fellows of the AIMBE speaks to the outstanding talent that can be found right here at the University of Delaware,” said Dean Levi Thompson. “Their work to tackle the grandest challenges we face globally has the full support of their colleagues and this College, and I’m proud to see the wave of new innovations happening in laboratories right here in Delaware.”

Election as an AIMBE Fellow is among the highest recognitions medical and biological engineers can receive, and this cohort of fellows highlights the importance of diversity in disciplines required to advance the future of these research areas. According to an AIMBE press release, only the top 2% of medical and biological engineers are elected to the College of Fellows. Previous Fellows include Nobel prize winners, over 200 members of the National Academy of Engineering and recipients of many other accolades and accomplishments.

The honor recognizes those who have made significant contributions to “engineering and medicine research, practice or education” and to “the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of medical and biological engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to bioengineering education,” according to the AIMBE.

The 2022 Fellows will be formally recognized at a virtual ceremony on Friday, March 25.

Meet the Fellows

Wilfred Chen, an expert in protein engineering and synthetic biology and professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, joined UD faculty in 2011 after spending 16 years as a professor at the University of California, where he also served as presidential chair of chemical engineering. He has served in editorial roles for multiple journals, and continues to serve as an editor, associate editor or on the editorial board of several publications and has written 250 peer-reviewed studies that have been cited over 20,000 times.

Chen described his work as looking at proteins like individual LEGO blocks and finding ways to put them together. “If I can do it correctly, they can perform the precise functions I want them to do,” he said.

The complex biomolecular engineering Chen undertakes in his lab could have broad implications on a more renewable-based “green economy,” such as finding biological systems to replace petroleum-derived chemicals, as needed to swiftly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid future climate disasters. His work could also improve cancer treatment, but more work needs to be done before a new biological-based option can replace painful chemotherapy treatments.

“This award is an honor, and validates that we have the expertise necessary to pursue a much larger scale of biomedical research in the future,” he said, noting UD’s new Institute for Engineering Driven Health announced in late 2021.

Emily Day, with the Department of Biomedical Engineering, joined UD in 2013 after completing her doctorate in bioengineering at Rice University and a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at Northwestern University. Her lab at UD develops innovative nanomaterials that enable high precision therapy of cancer, blood disorders and other diseases while also studying nanoparticle interactions with biological systems from the subcellular-level to a whole-organism perspective. Day also has been recognized with an NSF CAREER Award along with dozens of other awards and grant honors.

The general idea of her work, Day said, is to “make carriers that can get therapeutic cargo where it needs to go in the body in a more precise and more effective way.”

Day said she is honored to be an AIMBE Fellow and excited by the advocacy opportunities the organization provides, as it will enable her to be a voice for science-supported policies promoting biomedical research that can ultimately improve patient care.

“Being a Fellow of AIMBE is not just an honor, but also a responsibility,” Day said. “The election of four UD faculty members this year demonstrates that the type of research being done in our College is top-quality science worthy of national recognition and that our faculty members are true advocates for the advancement of biomedical research.”

Darrin Pochan, who leads the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, joined the UD faculty in 1999 as one of the first members of the then-new Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He has published over 150 peer-reviewed articles with more than 22,000 citations and was named chair in 2014. Among other accolades, he is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom.

His research team uses tools from biology, such as biomolecules like peptides, to harness their complexities for the creation of future biomedical materials and sustainable materials. His highly collaborative pursuits, which he said rely on close partnerships with computational, chemistry and biology experts, ultimately aim to address the world’s grandest challenges, from having organs available for transplants to biodegradable polymer materials.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by institutions such as the AIMBE that are quite interdisciplinary,” Pochan said. “At UD, we attract world experts in these fields, and fellowships in these societies recognize this leadership. This really highlights the exciting, interdisciplinary nature of the world-class research we do at the University of Delaware.”

Liyun Wang, a biomechanics expert in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, joined the faculty at UD in 2005 following postdoctoral research in orthopedics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She serves as director for UD’s Center for Biomechanical Engineering Research and co-director of the Multiscale Assessment Research Core in UD’s new Delaware Center for Musculoskeletal Research. She also is a member of several notable professional organizations, including the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research, the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Orthopedic Researchers Society.

Wang’s research has focused on how mechanical forces affect body functions, particularly for patients who may be suffering from other health conditions such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis or cancer — or the new realm of “mechanobiology,” she explained. Wang said it was the collaborations not only in her lab, but across the College and University that have helped propel her cross-disciplinary work in musculoskeletal research to earn the recognition of groups like the AIMBE.

“Our ultimate goal is to amplify and increase the efficiency and safety of exercise on both healthy people and patient populations,” Wang said. “This honor is a recognition of all the hard work done by my former and current students and postdocs, as well as my collaborators.”

These four fellows join 13 other University of Delaware faculty members (past and current) that have been named AIMBE Fellows. Past honorees include E. Terry Papoutsakis (Class of Fellows 1993), Abraham M. Lenhoff (2003), David C. Martin (2005), Kelvin Lee (2010), Kristi Kiick (2012), Dawn M. Elliott (2013), Randall L. Duncan (2017), Millicent Sullivan (2017), Jill Higginson (2019), LaShanda Korley (2020) and Thomas Epps (2021).

| Photo illustration by Joy Smoker

Fine-Tuning Touch Technology

Fine-Tuning Touch Technology

UD’s Charles Dhong gets $1.9 million to develop new tactile aids

Bumps and lines make up touch-based technology such as Braille. But the human sense of touch is keen enough to detect differences that are much smaller. Research by Charles Dhong and his group at the University of Delaware has found that humans can feel differences in the chemical composition of a surface, down to the substitution of a single atom.

That ability is one focus of Dhong’s work as an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UD. He explores new possibilities for tactile technologies and the mechanical forces that affect the perception of touch.

Dhong presented research on this at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in San Diego on Wednesday, March 23. And he and collaborator Jared Medina, associate professor in UD’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, have new support for development of higher-quality tactile aids for people with visual impairments. The $1.9 million grant, which started in February and continues for five years, is from the National Eye Institute in collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind.

Current technology recreates tactile sense using tiny motors and electricity. But the bumps and buzzes they generate are not that good at mimicking the real thing.

A new approach to controlling perception of texture could have many applications, Dhong said. It could make it possible to design new types of surfaces or provide improved integration of the sense of touch into virtual reality environments. It could also improve existing devices, such as Braille displays, or provide feedback to surgeons conducting surgery remotely.

“When you touch an object, you’re feeling its surface, and you can change how it feels by changing the friction between that surface and your finger. That’s where the chemistry comes in,” Dhong said. “We think materials chemistry could open the door to recreating more nuanced sensations, whether you’re designing a product to feel a certain way or creating feedback devices for virtual reality.”

Research by Charles Dhong and his group at the University of Delaware has shown that humans can feel tiny differences in a surface, down to the substitution of a single atom.

Research by Charles Dhong and his group at the University of Delaware has shown that humans can feel tiny differences in a surface, down to the substitution of a single atom.

Progress in touch technology has lagged, in part because it involves multiple types of sensations, such as temperature and pain. In addition, some efforts to recreate touch have included systems designed to simulate a sense of moving one’s body — a complex sensation.

Dhong’s research focuses on a specific type of touch: using the fingers to detect fine textures. Some methods for evoking this kind of fine touch are already available. Your smartphone attracts your attention without sound, using a tiny vibrating device within. A refreshable Braille display for people with low vision or blindness uses an actuator to move pins up to create bumps.

This type of touch depends on a physical force — friction — which is the resistance that skin encounters as it brushes against an object. While attributes such as the contours of a surface influence friction, so does chemistry. The structure of the molecules within a substance and the properties of its surface also influence the sensation.

Dhong and his colleagues suspected that by altering only chemistry-related features, they could change how a surface feels.

In previous work, Dhong’s team asked people to touch single-molecule-thick layers of silane, a silicon-containing compound. None of the silane surfaces possessed detectable differences in smoothness.

But those who touched the surfaces could differentiate them based on chemical differences, including the substitution of one atom within each silane molecule for another, because of subtle changes in friction.

“Recent research has shown that people can detect the physical differences between surfaces at a resolution as low as 13 nanometers,” Dhong said. “Now we are saying that the sense of touch can also identify chemical changes as small as swapping a nitrogen atom for a carbon atom.”

In San Diego, Dhong presented recent work focusing on polymers, the go-to molecules for synthetic materials. Polymers are distinguished not only by their chemical formulas, but also by a characteristic known as crystallinity, which describes how neatly the chain-like molecules are organized. The polymers in these experiments had identical formulas and molecular weights. Only the degree of crystallinity differed.

In their experiments, the researchers focused on the perceived texture of thin layers of polymers. As with the silanes, they asked the subjects to slide their fingers across the polymer. This time, too, they found that people could differentiate between the polymers based only on variations in the friction resulting from subtle changes to the crystallinity of the molecules.

About the researcher

Charles Dhong, assistant professor of materials science and biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering, joined the University of Delaware faculty in 2019.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and did postdoctoral research in nanoengineering at the University of California, San Diego.

His research focuses on understanding the mechanical forces that shape the human sense of touch.

 Photo | illustration by Christian Derr, photo by Maria Errico, image of hand courtesy of Charles Dhong

Interdisciplinary Problem Solving

Interdisciplinary Problem Solving

Computing, engineering and polymer sciences converge in new NSF doctoral traineeship

Big-name chemical companies like DuPont and W.L. Gore have complex materials problems to solve. The trouble is they’re in need of well-rounded researchers to find the solutions they’ve been looking for, ideally highly skilled scientists with more than one area of expertise—like someone fluent in both materials engineering and computer science.

Recognizing that real-world need, award-winning UD Professor Arthi Jayaraman has created a collaborative, cross-disciplinary traineeship that will provide selected doctoral students from the University of Delaware and Delaware State University with the technical and professional training they need to thrive in their careers after graduation.

Anshuman Razdan

“That’s part of our mission, it’s at the core of what we do: Prepare our students, whether it’s for a life after as faculty or in national laboratories or industry,” said Anshuman (“A.R.”) Razdan, associate vice president of research development in UD’s Research Office. Jayaraman credited Razdan, along with Graduate College Dean Louis Rossi, for playing key roles in bringing her idea for this traineeship program to life.

“This is not a Ph.D. program by itself, but is designed to make the graduate student experience better,” Razdan said. “It’s an interdisciplinary collision, in a positive sense, and builds on extensive UD investment and success in the data sciences.”

The new National Science Foundation-funded Research Traineeship “Computing and Data Science Training for Materials Innovation, Discovery, AnalyticS” (NRT-MIDAS) will teach doctoral students in computer and information sciences, electrical and computing engineering, chemical engineering, materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering and chemistry programs how to use high-performance computing and data science to lead to new discoveries and innovations in the field of polymers.

NSF has awarded Jayaraman a nearly $3 million grant to support this traineeship over the next five years. Jayaraman, Centennial Term Professor in UD’s College of Engineering’s department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with a joint appointment in Materials Science and Engineering, will serve as director of this traineeship program. This traineeship will work with 50 to 100 UD and DSU doctoral students, some of whom will receive financial support for two years through this NSF grant. International students will also be able to apply to the traineeship program and some selected students may receive one semester of financial support from the College of Engineering.

The program is slated to admit its first cohort of new UD and Delaware State University graduate students from one of the six specified programs in winter 2022. Applications are due by Tuesday, Nov. 30, and selections will be made by Wednesday, Dec. 15.

Besides the interdisciplinary technical skills, trainees will also learn the essential professional skills that every employer wants to see in their employees: Researchers who know how to interact with team members from diverse backgrounds and know the importance of adaptable science communication both in the laboratory and to the broader community.

“All of the training elements were strategically selected: The technical training elements, applying computing and data science to polymer problems in the real world, combined with professional training elements where trainees work in teams with people who aren’t from the same discipline, learning to communicate, and going above and beyond to explain their work to the other person,” Jayaraman said. “Essentially this MIDAS traineeship is that extra, customized, all-rounded training layer we’re putting on top of what these doctoral students receive in their own graduate programs.”

In this photo taken before the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the wearing of masks and distancing in classrooms, Prof. Arthi Jayaraman speaks with students in her chemical engineering class.

The diverse NRT core faculty team facilitating this collaborative training environment were also strategically selected, and were chosen because of their accomplishments and expertise in one or two of the relevant disciplines. For example, Prof. Laure Kayser with the Department of Materials Science and Engineering has expertise in polymer materials for organic electronics, Prof. Austin Brockmeier with the Data Science Institute and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has expertise in data science applied to a variety of domain sciences, while Prof. Sunita Chandrasekaran with the Department of Computer and Information Sciences brings her expertise in high-performance computing.

On the forefront of solutions

Since polymers are used in everything from food packaging and paints to electronics and medical settings, companies are constantly searching for the latest and greatest materials for, say, an airplane body or COVID-19 vaccine delivery. That means both industry and academia are often pursuing ways to optimize polymers, turning to chemistry, materials science and engineering for solutions.

By offering professional cross-training in those disciplines as well as computer science and data science, Jayaraman hopes trainees will learn how to let the machines handle the optimization and avoid the tedious trial and error that would usually come with running all possible experiments in the lab. By combining disciplines, they can use computing, modeling and artificial intelligence to save the chemicals, time and effort that extensive laboratory experiments typically need.

“If you just did experiments in a lab, you’d test one chemical and ask, ‘How does it perform? How does it behave?’ and then move to the next chemical and repeat the process. This is trial and error,” Jayaraman said. “Companies often want to find faster and cheaper ways to explore different chemicals and get to the better-performing product.”

Joshua Enszer

That’s why Jayaraman made sure the program is partnering with companies searching for such solutions. In addition to DuPont and W.L. Gore, the traineeship has also established industry partnerships with Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Merck & Co. and Procter & Gamble, with more companies expected to join in the coming months and years.

An “NRT-Hackathon” course that is being designed for the traineeship program, after trainees complete core classes and right before they explore internships, will collect real-world problems from participating companies and turn them over to small teams of students to explore and solve with computing and data science tools over the course of a semester.

“Each problem will be a semester-long problem, and students from different disciplines in each team will have to teach each other what it means,” Jayaraman said, noting that a computer sciences student will need to learn the specific properties of a chemical, while the chemical engineer sharing that information will have to learn about the computing methods their computer science colleague is using to develop data-based solutions.

Not only will the training benefit students, but it will also serve existing and future industries by preparing a well-rounded workforce and also finding ways to solve real problems by replacing trial-and-error based experiments with computing-based approaches.

“It more than bridges the gap, it has a serious economic impact,” Razdan said, noting that the program could also help participating students decide whether a life in industry or academia is better for them.

In addition to these custom interdisciplinary courses that emphasize the importance of clear communication across disciplines, trainees will also complete their regular graduate work, and benefit from a secondary NRT-MIDAS-specific adviser.

“The way a chemical engineer talks and the way a computer scientist talks is not the same,” Jayaraman said. “We want to sharpen those professional skills, especially cross-disciplinary communications, by working in team environments with different backgrounds, both culturally and technically.”

An academic approach

Not all of the talented graduate students that will be selected for this traineeship will pursue industry careers; some may want to work in academia, where they could foster this comprehensive approach in their own future classrooms. Those pedagogically minded students will hone the teaching and communications skills they’ll need, but would otherwise not be included in their normal graduate programs. With this motivation, Jayaraman recruited a pedagogical expert into the NRT-MIDAS core faculty team.

Cathy Wu

“What we’re trying to do here is fill in a big need to have people who are better teachers from the start,” said Joshua Enszer, a chemical and biomolecular engineering associate professor and member of the NRT core faculty team. The NRT-MIDAS teaching fellowship builds off a program underway in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, where a handful of fellows work with faculty to actually implement a course during their graduate studies, he said.

“Because we’re bringing together these very important and very related areas, we’re working on helping improve communication on both sides,” Enszer said. “Bringing that together and then teaching everyone together is a really exciting opportunity. I think it’s going to help prepare this generation of graduate students for a variety of potential different careers.”

A diverse NRT-MIDAS core faculty team of nine faculty members, including Jayaraman, will provide technical and research training and mentoring. An independent advisory council, made up of six international experts from academia, national laboratories and industry, will offer their perspectives and recommendations in order to strengthen this interdisciplinary traineeship.

“UD really is an excellent environment for doing team science,” said Prof. Cathy Wu, an NRT-MIDAS core faculty member and Unidel Edward G. Jefferson Chair in Engineering and Computer Science, director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, director of the Data Science Institute and director of the Protein Information Resource. “This is just a great example of how Arthi (Jayaraman) has brought such an excellent, diverse team together for this particular training grant. But if we look around UD, this kind of very collaborative effort is happening with many different initiatives. I think team science, this kind of very inclusive environment, really is a signature of what we do at UD.”

Jayaraman and others at UD hope this training continues beyond the recently awarded grant.

“I tell faculty it’s like building a building,” Razdan said. “We want the faculty focused on building the building, constructing the idea. All of us, we’re here to support Arthi with scaffolding so she has everything she needs to imagine and execute the ideas that can only come from her. We’re very, very happy to be that scaffolding for her.”

 Photos by Evan Krape | 

Inspiring Innovation

Inspiring Innovation

UD National Academy of Inventors Fellows discuss the creative spirit, lessons learned

According to Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1937 for his study of vitamin c and cell respiration, “Innovation is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

Most of the time, innovators do not know if their ideas will pan out. A lot of the time they don’t. When failure occurs, inventors step back, reconsider and regroup, then keep pursuing their ideas, incorporating lessons learned along the way in order to pivot or start anew.

As we celebrate National Innovation Day on Tuesday, Feb. 16, UDaily asked several University of Delaware researchers who are fellows of the National Academy of Inventors to share their successes, stumbling blocks and suggestions on what it takes to innovate, invent and inspire new solutions to challenges facing society and the world.

Eleftherios (Terry) Papoutsakis

Eleftherios (Terry) Papoutsakis is the Unidel Eugene Du Pont Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. He was selected for NAI fellow status in December 2020 for translational biotechnology contributions that have profoundly impacted sustainable manufacturing and human health. One technology that Papoutsakis said has proven particularly useful and successful is his team’s development of a method to engineer microparticles that deliver gene-regulating material to hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells that live deep in our bone marrow, where they direct the formation of blood cells. The technology could be useful in treatment for inherited blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia, or to improve personalized medicine. The discovery, he said, was completely unexpected, but it is currently generating a lot of interest from companies.

Q: Were there inventors that you looked up to as a kid or other people or events that inspired your inventiveness?  

Papoutsakis: As a child, I did not know what inventors do but I was amazed by the ability of airplanes to fly, the discovery of plastics, fertilizers and pesticides (my dad had an orchard and could tell how important they were) and the concept of the vaccine. My generation first experienced the benefits of the polio vaccine and vaccines for other devastating diseases. That is why I decided to become a chemical engineer. I did not know at the time how broad the field was, but I had a cousin-in-law who was forward-looking, and he explained to me the potential of the field and its breadth.

Q: What are some of the stumbling blocks you’ve encountered as an inventor? How did you overcome them?

Papoutsakis: Two things come to mind. First, I wish I had taken a course in patent law and patent writing. I am still learning as I go along; however, I can’t help but think about what might have been different if I’d had training. I missed several opportunities to protect my research work.

Second, I wish I understood better how to “sell” (commercialize) my inventions and be good at it. It takes the right personality and a thick skin to swallow without pain the rejections (and I lack both), plus a lot of time to keep pushing.

Q: Are the best innovators also subject-matter experts? Or do great innovations just as often — or more often — flow from an idea from someone who does not know how to bring that idea to life, but gets connected with someone who does?

Papoutsakis: Not necessarily, intuition and imagination are more important, I think. In terms of which is better, subject-matter expertise or connections, I think the latter is as potent an avenue as the subject-matter expert who has intuition and imagination, or the right people to work with.

Q: What are the critical innovations we need now?

Papoutsakis: We have done well with the “easy” things that make a lot of money like social media and the Googles and the Amazons of the world. We need these things, and the folks that developed them are geniuses. But we still need to solve really big problems in energy, the environment, global warming, sustainable manufacturing and transportation. Then there is the problem of affordable and adaptable health care. The pandemic is just a reminder and an advance notice as to what humanity might be up against as we move forward.

Q: Are there ways to develop/nurture an innovative mind and keep that spark alive?

Papoutsakis: Patents are a key part of invention. I think it is important to engage both undergrads and graduate students in all aspects of the patent process early on. From patent applications to writing provisional patents and, later, work with lawyers to file the utility patents or even just to read them. It is so different from reading scientific papers. Having this knowledge and background early in one’s academic or industrial career would be beneficial for an individual and for future inventors working with that individual to keep the spark alive.

Q: Is there anything you would tell your younger inventor self if you could?

Papoutsakis: At the risk of repeating myself, I would tell my younger self to take a course in patent writing and entrepreneurship, to work with a “master” in my field and to think outside of the box. The best ideas are not necessarily based on “expensive science.”

Kristi Kiick

Kristi Kiick, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2019. Her research involves developing biomaterials to advance medicine, from healing wounds faster and improving chemotherapies, to treating heart and musculoskeletal diseases. Kiick’s proudest moment of invention occurred as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology when she discovered that the natural protein-synthesis machinery of E. coli can be tuned to use novel chemical groups not normally used by nature in protein synthesis. Specific enzymes that normally control what amino acids are included in proteins can simply be produced at higher levels in the bacterial cell. This change alone can permit an enormous range of chemically reactive proteins to be produced. Other scientists have built on Kiick’s original approach to create applications that now help scientists learn about processes inside of cells in order to better understand development, disease and drug treatments.

Q: Were there inventors that you looked up to as a kid or other people or events that inspired your inventiveness? 

Kiick: My exposure to and interest in invention occurred while I was a research scientist at Kimberly Clark Corporation. I was inspired by many of my co-workers, who each approached innovation and invention differently. Some people saw research articles and applied those findings to technical advances we were trying to make in our laboratories, and others found inspiration from the fundamental principles of the world around them. It was inspiring and a little bit intimidating for me to watch how these colleagues generated and implemented ideas. It definitely changed how I looked at science and its application in solving technical challenges.

Q: What are some of the stumbling blocks you’ve encountered as an inventor? How did you overcome them?

Kiick: Honestly, the biggest stumbling block for me was trusting my scientific intuition as a young scientist. It took me a long time to understand that my ideas could be novel and that what might appear as an experimental failure could actually be a new discovery. The thoughtful and supportive mentoring by my graduate adviser was pivotal in my making this transition.

Q: Are the best innovators also subject-matter experts? Or do great innovations just as often — or more often — flow from an idea from someone who does not know how to bring that idea to life, but gets connected with someone who does?

Kiick: The best innovations don’t necessarily come from subject matter experts. Having a fresh look at a question or an idea can spark innovation. The implementation of many technical innovations is often best accomplished by a diverse team, where deep technical knowledge can be applied in a new way because someone has thought to look at the idea differently.

Q: What are the critical innovations we need now?

Kiick: I think there are still critical innovations to be made in how we apply massive amounts of data to create new technologies and social systems that allow us to be good stewards of our planet, our communities and ourselves.

Q: Are there ways to develop/nurture an innovative mind and keep that spark alive?

Kiick: As Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental.”

Q: Is there anything you would tell your younger inventor self if you could?

Kiick: I just laughed out loud. I would say surround yourself with supportive people who are trying to make a positive difference. Say ‘yes, and’ and not ‘no, but.’ Travel more. Enjoy the journey.

Yushan Yan

Yushan Yan, Henry B. du Pont Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2018. He is a co-inventor on more than 20 patents. Among his team’s most recent inventions is a new class of ionically conducting polymers that have the potential to drastically reduce the cost of green hydrogen and fuel cells and to help deeply decarbonize all sectors of our economy. In 2019, Yan launched a startup called W7energy, now known as Versogen, alongside UD students and alumni to commercialize this new class of polymers and membranes. He’s proud to report that the company has grown rapidly over the last two years.

Q: Were there inventors that you looked up to as a kid or other people or events that inspired your inventiveness?

Yan: When I was a kid, I did not understand the concept of “invention,” per se, but I did like tinkering with my hands. For example, I enjoyed making my own primitive telescope or modifying my kerosene lamp to make it burn cleaner. Years later I would learn that what I did to the lamp was to turn the diffusion flame (where the fuel and oxidizer are separate prior to the reaction) into a premixed flame (where the fuel and oxidizer are mixed) like those found in a Bunsen burner.

Q: What are some of the stumbling blocks you’ve encountered as an inventor? How did you overcome them?

Yan: Coming up with an invention that is useful is not difficult, but developing a good sense of what kind of invention can be commercialized and have a measurable societal impact took some time.

Q: What are the critical innovations we need now?

Yan: As a society we still need many critical innovations in all kinds of fields. For myself, being able to reduce the cost of hydrogen and fuel cells to help deeply decarbonize our economy is a very high priority.

Q: Are there ways to develop/nurture an innovative mind and keep that spark alive?

Yan: I think it is important to instill curiosity into our children and to convince them that everyone has the potential to change what is possible.

| Photo illustration by David Barczak |

Leadership and Impact

Leadership and Impact

Alumnus, department chair Kristi Kiick reflects on how engineering leaders help others.

What does it mean to be a leader in science and engineering? You might invent something new or discover a fundamental truth about the world—impressive feats—but that isn’t enough. Transformational leaders in science and engineering help other people.

“A leader in engineering needs to be curious, connected, and committed to identifying solutions to an entire range of challenges that face individuals and society,” says Kristi Kiick, AS89, chair of the University of Delaware Department of Biomedical Engineering and Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. “Leaders in engineering also need to be compassionate, to understand the human aspect of the technical challenges that we are trying to address and of the educational programs that we are developing.”

At the 2016 inauguration of UD President Dennis Assanis, president-elect and UD alumnus Joe Biden spoke about the late Dr. Paul Dolan, a UD professor who encouraged Biden to run for office the first time even though his opponent was a well-liked incumbent.

“That made me believe,” said Biden. “That made me believe that I was worthy of doing it. Because if Paul Dolan thought I should do it—all you professors, you have such profound, profound influence.”

The message resonated with Kiick, a UD alumna, reminding her of the impact that individuals can have on others through their empathy and passion.

Top-notch materials research

Kiick is an internationally recognized inventor and an expert in the design and synthesis of biologically inspired and biologically produced materials, developing materials for treating wounds, arthroses, and surgically manipulated blood vessels. Her discoveries could ultimately help people suffering from a range of debilitating diseases and conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease.

A Fellow of the American Chemical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Inventors, Kiick has published over 175 articles, book chapters, and patents, and has delivered over 200 invited and award lectures. She’s received many prestigious honors and serves on the advisory and editorial boards for multiple international journals and research organizations.

From 2011 to 2019, Kiick served as the deputy dean of the College of Engineering, working with stakeholders across the university and region to develop interdisciplinary graduate and research partnerships with various industries and national laboratories. She also focused efforts internally to strengthen the college’s intellectual and physical infrastructure.

As chair of UD’s biomedical engineering program, Kiick aims to connect faculty and their expertise to national and global initiatives in mobility, molecular therapeutics and platforms for understanding disease.

For a leader in engineering, a strong foundation in a technical discipline is essential, as is the ability to communicate across disciplines, says Kiick.  For example, the continued growth of data science and computation allows engineers to connect ever more readily to data and data sets that span both physical and social sciences. This, in turn, enables engineering approaches to inform public and health policies in impactful ways.

Advancing biomedical engineering

Kiick began her role as Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering in December 2020. The department recently celebrated its tenth anniversary but is already a powerhouse with four NSF CAREER Award winners, indicating the early-career research excellence of the faculty, leadership and participation in several large research programs and institutes, and high-performing alumni.  For example, 95 percent of biomedical engineering alumni who received a bachelor’s degree from 2015 to 2019 are employed or pursuing higher education. They’re working in 49 states and 94 countries around the world.

Over the next five years, Kiick aims to connect faculty and their expertise to national and global initiatives in mobility, molecular therapeutics, and platforms for understanding disease. She wants to expand the reach of the department’s educational and scholarly activities into underserved communities and continue to develop leaders, from all levels of the UD biomedical engineering community, to contribute to these areas.

“We have outstanding students, educators, and scholars, with interests from the molecular to the human scale, and these are exciting times to be contributing to human health,” she says.

Kiick, who received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UD in 1989 before completing graduate degrees at the University of Georgia and University of Massachusetts Amherst, grew up in an era when science was becoming increasingly visible to the public. She has admired many scientists who have found new ways to address old challenges. Her inspiration for leadership began with her father, who was a middle-school science teacher and a high-school wrestling and track coach.

“He was always connected to our community, and seeing the sorts of activities he made happen, and the fun he would create, was foundational in ways I didn’t understand at the time,” says Kiick.  “Since then, many others in my life, education and career have helped me learn new skills and find ways to channel my dedication to people, science and education.  And for me, as for our President Joe Biden, a good many of them were and are right here at UD.”

Article by Julie Stewart