Ashish Kulkarni, an assistant professor in the Chemical Engineering Department, has been awarded a prestigious five-year, $637,359 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The NSF’s CAREER program provides highly competitive awards that support the research, teaching, and outreach activities of promising and talented early-career faculty.
Kulkarni’s research combines nanotechnology, engineering and immunobiology to create nanoscale technologies that stimulate the immune system in specific ways to treat diseases and improve human health.
“One of the biggest questions in the field of immunoengineering today is how do these nanomaterials interact with immune cells, and what kind of interactions do they create, whether positive or unwanted?” Kulkarni says. “This project is about understanding and mapping these interactions to develop guidelines for future generations of nanomaterials that are more effective and beneficial.”
With the CAREER grant, Kulkarni will focus his research on the relationship between nanomaterials and inflammasome activation. specifically, the relationship between the nanomaterial’s surface functionality and core properties and inflammasome activation in immune cells.
Kulkarni points out that dysregulated immune system activation is at the root of several diseases. Too much activation can lead to autoimmunity and too little can lead to immunodeficiency, compromising resistance to infections and allowing for the development of malignancy. The precision of interaction between the nanomaterial and the immune response is essential to harnessing the full capabilities of nanomaterials.
“The proposed study will enhance our fundamental understanding of nanomaterial-immune cell interactions and enable us to develop novel approaches that can effectively target inflammasomes to treat chronic diseases, substantially contributing to improving human health and quality of life,” Kulkarni says.
Another key goal of the grant is to increase STEM outreach to underrepresented groups and engage students early on in project-based learning to foster excitement and involvement in immunological research.
As part of the grant, Kulkarni plans to integrate mentorship and research experiences into immunoengineering and bioengineering courses at UMass Amherst and run a summer workshop for local K-12 students from underrepresented groups. Kulkarni also plans to launch an online open course network of teachers and students interested in immunoengineering to disseminate, discuss, and collaborate on their work.
“Here at UMass, we aren’t driven only by doing the research but also knowing the impact we can make in the world. The students who come here arrive with that same attitude, and that's why we have undergraduates working in our lab. We share a motivation to understand the important challenges that we face in our lives and how to solve those problems,” Kulkarni says. “And I want to expand that energy and excitement to the next generation of engineers.”