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Barry and Afsaneh Siadat Establish Early Career Faculty Development Award in Chemical Engineering

Dr. Bahram “Barry” and Mrs. Afsaneh Siadat of Miami Beach have pledged $150,000 over a five-year period to establish an Early Career Faculty Development Award for supporting the research program of an untenured faculty member in the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department at UMass Amherst. Strong preference will be given to faculty working in the broad field of bioengineering, a strategic growth area for the department and the College of Engineering that aims at developing revolutionary technologies to improve the quality of human life.

The Siadat Award will provide critical early support for a junior faculty member who demonstrates promise in establishing a nationally visible, externally funded, research program. The award can be renewed for up to five years, after a successful annual progress review.

Dr. Siadat earned his M.S. in Polymer Science and Engineering in 1977 and his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering in 1979 from UMass Amherst. He is the co-founder and managing director of SK Capital Partners and a successful investor with a strong track record of senior leadership in both private equity and major public corporations. He also serves as an advisor to the Chemical Engineering Department Head, Professor T.J. (Lakis) Mountziaris.

“We are very grateful to Barry and Afsaneh Siadat for their wonderful gift,” says Professor Mountziaris. “The department has been undergoing a period of unprecedented growth, despite the nationwide economic downturn, and faces stiff competition in its efforts to attract and retain talented faculty members. The Siadat Early Career Faculty Development Award will help us retain and recruit outstanding junior faculty members in the field of bioengineering, one of our strategic areas of growth.” 

Chemical engineering faculty members working in the field of bioengineering pursue a variety of cutting edge research projects.

Assistant Professor Shelly Peyton is engineering in vitro models of human tissue to study disease. Her lab is very interdisciplinary, as it combines techniques in materials science, polymer chemistry, bioengineering, and cell biology to study how cells in the body grow and get out of control during cancer and cardiovascular disease. Traditionally, scientists use animals to try to replicate what happens during human disease, but there are problems with this approach, as animal models are very expensive, and, not surprisingly, they often don’t behave very much like humans. Instead, the Peyton Lab develops disease models of tissues using biomaterials to study how cells behave during disease outside of the body.

“These models act as a substitute for using animals to study disease in the lab,” Peyton explains. “Instead, we can make micro-tissues that look very much like a tissue would look like in a human. Using these biomaterial micro-tissues, my lab is uncovering why breast cancer cells prefer to spread to certain organs versus others, and why some patients may be resistant to common chemotherapy drugs.”

Assistant Professor Jessica Schiffman is engineering renewable biopolymers, or materials derived from natural sources, in order take full advantage of their unique properties. “Intrinsically, biocompatible polymers from crab shells and fruit pectin can coagulate blood, remove toxic metal ions, and offer anti-inflammatory properties,” explains Schiffman. “Natural antimicrobial compounds, like cinnamon and vanilla, kill the harmful bacteria that can cause deadly infection. The most amazing part is that bacterial resistance to natural antimicrobial compounds has never been observed.”

Her group is analyzing the chemistry, processability, and biological functionality of these materials in order to engineer nanostructures that address public health concerns in the biomedical and environmental fields. Potential applications include anti-biofilm coatings, nanofiber scaffolds for wound healing, drug delivery nanoparticles, as well as barrier layers that protect against corrosion. Her research is interdisciplinary and draws influences from the fields of chemical engineering, materials science, environmental engineering, and microbiology.

Associate Professor Neil Forbes has engineered non-toxic Salmonella bacteria that can use their own self-propulsion system to venture deep into tumors and manufacture a powerful anti-cancer drug. In laboratory testing, the new therapy, when combined with radiation treatment, delivered what Forbes calls a “double whammy” that swelled the 30-day survival rate of mice with breast cancer from 0 percent to 100 percent. An article about the landmark research was published in the British Journal of Cancer.

“It sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it?” says Forbes. “But Salmonella bacteria, in effect, are each little robots that can swim wherever they want. They have propellers in the form of flagella, they have sensors so they can tell where they’re going, and they’re also little chemical factories. So what we’re doing as engineers is controlling where they go, what chemical we want them to make, and when they make it.”

As Director of the Institute for Cellular Engineering (ICE), Associate Professor Susan Roberts recently developed a 19-credit Graduate Certificate in Cellular Engineering, the first campus graduate certificate targeting the critical interface between engineering and the life sciences.

Roberts’ lab is spearheading efforts to boost production of the anti-cancer drug Taxol® made from yew trees. “What Taxol® does,” explains Roberts, “is actually induce the death of cancer cells. Specifically, it binds to micro-tubules, which are important in cell division, and prevents the cancer cells from dividing properly.” 

Roberts and Associate Professor Surita Bhatia are developing an innovative wound dressing material that keeps wounds moist and showers them with oxygen to promote healing. “Our wound dressing consists of an alginate gel containing oxygen-storing droplets, all interspersed throughout the layers of a standard gauze dressing,” explains Bhatia. 

She also collaborates with Roberts on a method for embedding various kinds of cells in a polymer matrix that will enable delivery of these cells into the human body to reconstruct organs and tissues, thus reducing the need for transplantations.

Bioengineering projects such as these helped motivate the Siadats to establish their Early Career Faculty Development Award, and Dr. Siadat hopes they will also inspire other alumni and friends of the Chemical Engineering Department to support its researchers as well.

“As an alumnus of the UMass Chemical Engineering Department, I am gratified by the level of talent and the quality of the work of the early career faculty in the department,” says Dr. Siadat. “Afsaneh and I are hopeful that the establishment of the Siadat award would further accelerate the success of this talented group of faculty members.” (May 2012)

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