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Cho, McGee, and Howell Receive Competitive NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Selena Y. Cho, Joshua McGee, and Lars Howell

Cho, McGee, and Howell

Three College of Engineering graduate students were among the Thirteen Students and Alums to Receive Prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships. The College of Engineering students were Selena Y. Cho of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department and Joshua McGee and Lars Howell of the Chemical Engineering Department. The program provides three years of support during a five-year fellowship period.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is a competitive award program that awards 1,600 fellowships a year. The award includes a $34,000 stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate degree-granting institution of higher education for each Fellow who uses the support in a fellowship year.

Cho is researching the use of body-sensor fusion for predicting fall risk in older adults. As she says, “Falls in older adults are becoming a major public health issue as the proportion of elderly people in our population continues to grow. One in four older adults fall each year creating over $50 billion in annual fall-related healthcare costs in the U.S.”

As Cho explains, despite the prominent use of body-sensor techniques such as inertial measurement units, heart rate monitors, and blood pressure sensors for detecting mobility and autonomic nervous system issues, respectively, these approaches are largely performed in isolation.

Cho concludes that few, if any, studies have fused these three sensor types to predict fall risk. Yet mobility and autonomic nervous system functions are inextricably linked.

“My research aims to examine the interaction between autonomic nervous system function and mobility using a combination of inertial measurement units, heart rate, and blood pressure sensors,” Cho says about her plan for creating a powerful fall-risk prediction tool.

Cho explains that “Inertial measurement units can accurately detect and identify motion, and heart rate and blood pressure sensors are tightly linked to autonomic nervous system function. Fusing inertial measurement units and heart rate sensor data can yield valuable improvements in other classifications.”

McGee is studying how microfluidics can be applied to improve the synthesis, purification, and characterization of protein nanoparticle systems, which have proven to be particularly ideal drug-delivery carriers, especially in cancer patients, due to their amphiphilic, biocompatible, and biodegradable nature.

As McGee says, “It is of paramount importance to research and develop new ways to enhance clinical efficacy and decrease toxicity of therapeutics against cancer.”

According to McGee, protein nanoparticles have enabled controlled delivery of therapeutics, imaging agents, nucleic acids, and proteins in a tissue-specific manner. And such particles can be engineered to bind specifically to cancerous tissue, thereby improving drug efficacy and safety.

“However,” says McGee, “traditional procedures for producing protein nanoparticles suffer from low throughput, low reproducibility of desired attributes (size, zeta potential, stability, polydispersity), and discontinuous processing.”

To improve this process for producing protein nanoparticles, explains McGee, he will be researching two hypotheses. “The superior control of solution conditions in a microfluidic device will enable the synthesis of protein nanoparticles with improved properties in a high-throughput manner,” says McGee. “And precise control over flow conditions and solution properties will enable more correlative protein nanoparticle characterization through replication of the tumor microenvironment.”

Howell hypothesizes that by delivering the immunostimulatory factors into cancer tumors via non-toxic and highly mobile Salmonella bacteria, doctors can overcome the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment and induce tumor cell death.

As Howell says, tumors are immunosuppressed environments that make therapeutic delivery difficult. Immunotherapies can be effective, but only in patients with immune-active tumors. Additionally, nonspecific immunotherapies can cause autoimmunity.

“We need to engineer a system that can specifically activate the immune system within the tumor microenvironment and to better understand the factors that enhance the cytotoxic response,” says Howell.

Howell explains that Salmonella typhimurium bacteria grow specifically in the tumor microenvironment and can deliver proteins intra- and extra-cellularly, making them an excellent therapeutic delivery system.

“The long-term objective of this project,” says Howell, “is to develop a robust immunotherapy that utilizes the tumor-targeting and cell-invasion ability of Salmonella to generate a tumor-specific immune response.”

The Graduate Research Fellowship program provides fellowships to individuals selected early in their graduate careers based on their demonstrated potential for significant research achievements in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. Its goal is to provide financial support to early-career individuals with a demonstrated potential to be high-achieving scientists and engineers and to broaden participation in STEM for underrepresented groups, including women, minorities, persons with disabilities, and veterans. (April 2021)

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