In the News

Capturing Waste Heat Energy with Improved Polymers

A team led by UMass chemist Dhandapani Venkataraman, “DV,” and electrical engineer Zlatan Aksamija, reported in Nature Communications on an advance they outline toward more efficient, cheaper, polymer-based harvest of heat energy. “It will be a surprise to the field,” DV predicts, “it gives us another key variable we can alter to improve the thermo-electric efficiency of polymers. This should make us, and others, look at polymer thermo-electrics in a new light.” Aksamija explains, “Using polymers to convert thermal energy to electricity by harvesting waste heat has seen an uptick in interest in recent years. Waste heat represents both a problem but also a resource; the more heat your process wastes, the less efficient it is.”

DV and his chemistry PhD student Connor Boyle, with Aksamija and his electrical engineering Ph.D. student Meenakshi Upadhyaya worked in what DV calls “a true collaboration,” where each insight from numerical simulations informed the next series of experiments, and vice versa. The team turned to chemist Michael Barnes, a co-author on their recent paper, who used Kelvin Probe Force Microscopy to probe the dopants at the nano level and show that clustering is indeed present in polymers doped at room temperature, but not at higher temperatures.

The findings should provide a new path for designing more efficient polymers for thermo-electric devices. DV notes that until now, chemists and materials scientists have been trying to organize polymers to be more like the inorganics, “nicely aligned and very regular, which is difficult to do,” he adds. “It turns out that this may not be the way to go; you can take another road or another approach. We hope this paper provides a basis to move polymer-based thermo-electrics forward.”

Trisha Andrew Developed Smart Pajamas to Gather Information While You Sleep

The American Chemical Society showcased the ‘Phyjama’ developed by Trisha L. Andrew, chemistry, and presented at the ACS Spring 2019 National Meeting & Exposition. The ‘smart’ pajamas include monitors to help track sleep patterns, and could be available to consumers within a few years.

"Our smart pajamas overcame numerous technical challenges," says Trisha L. Andrew, Ph.D., who led the team. "We had to inconspicuously integrate sensing elements and portable power sources into everyday garments, while maintaining the weight, feel, comfort, function and ruggedness of familiar clothes and fabrics. We also worked with computer scientists and electrical engineers to process the myriad signals coming from the sensors so that we had clear and easy-to-understand information." 

Getting enough quality sleep can help protect people against stress, infections and multiple diseases, such as heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health. Studies have found that quality sleep also increases mental acuity and sharpens decision-making skills. Yet most people do not get enough sleep — or the right kind. 

Vicki Hubby Receives the CNS Outstanding Staff Award

"Vicki’s performance has been outstanding by any measure. She is considered the go-to person for many issues, including financial, compliance, and more. She is intelligent, efficient, always cheerful, and can be relied upon to solve any problem. She is indispensable and irreplaceable in that she almost single-handedly oversees all financial operations of our department, and is, in fact, the only person who fully understands them. "   Serio emphasized her gratitude to the award winners for their extraordinary work, presenting them as leaders for the college. “Their tremendous work continues to foster student achievement, demonstrate excellence, and build a more inclusive environment,” she said. “They are wonderful role models for us all.”  Friends, family, and colleagues gathered at a reception and awards ceremony May 14 for this year’s recipients of the CNS Outstanding Achievement Awards. The awards recognize faculty, staff and students who have made important contributions to their discipline, department, college and university.

Vachet Receives CNS Outstanding Research Award

"Vachet’s interdisciplinary research program is at the interfaces of analytical, biological, and materials chemistry. He and his research group develop and apply new methods based on mass spectrometry to tackle biomedically important problems that are difficult to address with existing tools. His work has elucidated the molecular details associated with protein amyloid fibril formation, which is a special type of protein aggregation that occurs in numerous human diseases. His research has also led to the development of sensitive new methods to track nanomaterial drug delivery vehicles in biological systems, facilitating the creation of better therapeutics with fewer side effects." 

Award recipients are chosen by committees chaired by designees appointed by  Dean Tricia Serio, including past recipients. Dean Serio,  associate dean for research and innovation Mark Tuominen, and department representatives congratulated the winners, each speaking briefly about their experiences. 

Gierasch Elected to National Academy of Sciences

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences announced this week the election of 100 new members to the academy in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. They include Lila M. Gierasch, distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The NAS is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists are elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research. Gierasch’s research focus for decades has been protein folding, that is, how amino acid sequence determines the three-dimensional structure of a protein. She is particularly focused on how proteins fold in the cellular environment and the role of molecular chaperones in ensuring high fidelity in the folding process.

She says of her selection, “I am thrilled by this honor. The recognition of one’s contributions over a career by colleagues is truly gratifying.”

John McCarthy, UMass Amherst provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, says of Gierasch’s career accomplishments, “This is a richly deserved honor for one of our stellar faculty members. Lila Gierasch is part of what makes this university great.”

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars established by an Act of Congress signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The academy is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Scientists are elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research.

S. "Thai" Thayumanavan awarded the 2019 Mahoney Life Sciences Prize

S. ‘Thai’ Thayumanavan, professor of chemistry is awarded the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize for his paper: “Shrink-wrapped Proteins as Next Generation Biologics.” Thayumanavan’s work addresses major challenges in delivering protein-based drugs and devices across a cell membrane while keeping the protein stable and avoiding unwanted immune system responses. The award-winning study presents a “robust and sustainable” strategy which overcomes those challenges: the protein itself serves as a template, and polymers self-assemble to form a sheath around it. The technology has exciting potential applications in therapeutics.

The panel of expert judges praised Thayumanavan’s work as “a major step forward that takes on a long-standing problem,” and “a large advance in the field.” Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences said, “Thai’s approach — to have the protein template its own packaging — is the type of innovative and out-of-the-box thinking that enables transformational advances in science. His work embodies the spirit of this award.”

Richard Vachet, chemistry department head, said, "Thai is a very creative scientist who has a remarkable ability to turn fundamental chemical understanding into new materials that solve real-world problems in biomedicine. His work is a great example of how UMass Amherst researchers are doing translational research."

Through the generosity of the Mahoney family, the prize recognizes UMass Amherst scientists whose work has the potential for advancing connections between research and industry. The Prize includes an award of $10,000 and is awarded annually to one faculty member who has demonstrated excellence in life sciences research, and whose work significantly advances connections between academic research and industry.

Riddha Das won 3MT People’s Choice Award

Riddha Das, a doctoral student in chemistry, won the 3MT People’s Choice Award. “It was very difficult to condense five or six years of research into three minutes,” she said, “but now if I’m at an interview or a conference, I don’t have to stumble or wonder where to begin.” Das’s research focuses on using nanoparticles to fight cancer.

Organized by the Graduate School’s Office of Professional Development, the annual three-week-long contest tests the research communication skills of 40 doctoral and master’s students by challenging them to explain the significance of their academic projects in accessible and compelling presentations of three minutes or less.

The finalists presented their talks at a public event at Amherst’s Jones Library on March 23.

Gov. Charlie Baker Celebrates Opening of Physical Sciences Building

Gov. Charlie Baker celebrated the opening of the new Physical Sciences Building (PSB) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a facility funded by the state that fosters and expands cutting-edge collaborative learning and research at the Commonwealth’s flagship campus.

“We were pleased to invest in the new Physical Sciences Building, which will serve as a hub for the natural sciences at UMass Amherst,” Baker said. “The facility’s expansion will help foster new research and career opportunities, which will help support the STEM workforce pipeline here in Massachusetts.”

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy says, “This complex is home to the very best facilities in physics and chemistry, enhancing the research capability for our faculty and students in the College of Natural Sciences and providing the STEM talent that is essential for the state’s innovation economy. We’re deeply grateful for the governor’s support and the state’s investment in UMass Amherst.”

“This project reflects the significance of the Commonwealth’s investment in faculty excellence, scientific discovery and student success at UMass Amherst,” said UMass President Marty Meehan. “And it strengthens UMass Amherst’s position as a top-tier public research university that prepares students to thrive in the high-demand STEM fields that are so important to the future of Massachusetts.”

Weaver Named American Council on Education Fellow for 2019-20

Gabriela C. Weaver, special assistant to the Provost for Educational Initiatives and professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been named an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow for academic year 2019-20.

In nominating Weaver, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said, “Dr. Gabriela Weaver has established herself as an outstanding professor and a national educational leader who has pioneered and evaluated a number of technology-enhanced approaches to teaching, as well as pedagogical approaches that engage students early on in inquiry. She is also a proven mentor of STEM faculty. Her selection as an ACE fellow is an indication of her potential for higher level academic leadership positions.”

The NIH PREP program helps students gain research experience

Now beginning its eleventh year, the campus’s Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), which supports educational activities that enhance biomedical, behavioral and clinical research workforce diversity, recently was awarded its third grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue funding the program.

It supports students who are exploring the idea of graduate school and seeking research experience to strengthen their applications. The five-year, $1.7 million grant for PREP, overseen by Lynmarie Thompson, chemistry, Shelly Peyton, chemical engineering, and Sandra Petersen, veterinary and animal science, has seen more than 70 students complete UMass PREP, the directors report. Of those, 97 percent were accepted into Ph.D. programs on campus or other institutions. Over 85 percent have finished or are currently enrolled in biomedical or biobehavioral doctoral programs.

Mingxu You Receives Sloan Research Fellowship Award

Mingxu You of UMass Amherst Chemistry has received the highly prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship award for 2019, and was one of only 23 chemists nationwide to win the award this year.

“Sloan Research Fellows are the best young scientists working today,” and “Sloan Fellows stand out for their creativity, for their hard work, for the importance of the issues they tackle, and the energy and innovation with which they tackle them. To be a Sloan Fellow is to be in the vanguard of twenty-first century science.”, according to the president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Adam F. Falk.

Andrew will Present Kavli Lecture

Professor Trisha Andrew, Chemistry, has been selected to present the Kavli Foundation Emerging Leader in Chemistry Lecrure at the ACS Meeting in Orlando this April. The Kavli Foundation Lecture Series, supported by the Kavli Foundation, promotes pioneering discoveries to some of the worlds most pressing challenges.

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