In the News

Photo of Prof. Lara Al-Hariri

Al-Hariri Wins 2023 Faculty Peer Mentor Award

Photo of Gabriela Weaver

Weaver Appointed to NASEM Committee on Equitable and Effective Undergraduate STEM Education

Prof. Venkararaman in his lab

Venkataraman Bridging the Clean Energy Gap

Prof. Dhandapani Venkataraman (DV) is passionate about an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems. “I tend to explore issues at the edge of my field of expertise because it helps push the field forward into new directions,” he says.

One of his new directions is at the intersection of energy and equity. Working with The Energy Transition Institute (ETI) at UMass Amherst, DV recently served as the principal investigator for a series of two National Science Foundation-funded workshops called NSF2026 that were focused on identifying energy technology research priorities as they relate to social justice.

The workshops were led by an interdisciplinary team including DV, CNS Associate Dean for Research Mark Tuominen, ETI Faculty Director Erin Baker, and Economics Professor Michael Ash. “By bringing together social scientists, equity scholars, and other stakeholders, we were able to ensure that clean energy research priorities include a just and equitable approach,” DV said.

Equity and the energy transition

The dire state of global climate change necessitates a rapid and effective transition away from fossil fuel dependency. While clean energy solutions exist, if not implemented properly they have the potential to cause or exacerbate financial and access inequalities for marginalized groups. For example, paying for solar energy often requires a higher percentage of a low-income household’s annual salary than that of a moderate-income household.

Another challenge is a lack of access to renewable energy sources. Oftentimes, low-income or marginalized communities don’t have access to clean energy opportunities that are readily available to wealthy communities.

In addition, several approaches to clean energy implementation solely focus on income-based inequity challenges. This single-lensed approach fails to consider the many other aspects tied to inequity like race, ethnicity, or gender.

DV noted that it's also a priority to ensure that equity issues are raised early in the planning and design process. “Rather than trying to speak for communities, we need to seek input and involve impacted communities in early phases of the projects,” he said.

Based on the workshops, DV and his team published an opinion piece in Nature Energy detailing five key factors for government agencies and philanthropic institutions to prioritize moving forward. These include: defining equity more broadly, better engaging with stakeholders, resolving competing equity interests, expanding the criteria for funding, and achieving long-term structural reforms such as ensuring that equity criteria are built into funding opportunities. The team is slated to produce a final report in April 2023 with in-depth recommendations for where the NSF should dedicate research resources. “These NSF2026 workshops are just the start,” says DV. “We are very much looking forward to the next steps and eventually, to operationalizing an equity-based approach for energy research.”

headshot of chemistry Prof. Vincent Rotello

Rotello Receives International Cope Scholar Award

Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Vincent Rotello, has received the Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society for his work using synthetic organic chemistry to engineer the interface between the synthetic and biological worlds. The award consists of $5,000, a certificate and a $40,000 unrestricted research grant.

Rotello’s lab spans the areas of devices, polymers and nanotechnology/bionanotechnology to build lego-like molecules at the nano scale that have important applications in health care and environmental delivery, imaging, diagnostics and nanotoxicology.

Rotello’s colleague, Jeffrey N. Johnston of Vanderbilt University, says “In his 25 years of independent research, Rotello has produced an incredibly diverse, innovative and influential body of research that brilliantly blends the atom-by-atom control afforded by synthesis and the rigor of physical organic chemistry. He uses these tools to address important questions and needs in materials and biology. His extremely imaginative program has produced a lasting impact and continues to evolve in new and fascinating directions.”

gead shot of Prof. Trisha Andrew

Andrew Solves Wearable Sensor Problem

A team of researchers, led by Trisha L. Andrew, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, recently announced that they have synthesized a new material that solves one of the most difficult problems in the quest to create wearable, unobtrusive sensitive sensors: the problem of pressure. “Imagine comfortable clothing that would monitor your body’s movements and vital signs continuously, over long periods of time,” says Andrew. “Such clothing would give clinicians fine-grained details for remote detection of disease or physiological issues.” One way to get this information is with tiny electromechanical sensors that turn your body’s movements—such as the faint pulse you can feel when you place a hand on your chest—into electrical signals. But what happens when you receive a hug or take a nap lying on your stomach? “That increased pressure overwhelms the sensor, interrupting the flow of data, and so the sensor becomes useless for monitoring natural phenomena,” Andrew continues.

An illustration of the wearable sensor and various graphs detailing the physiological data that can be extracted

By placing the sensor on different parts of the body, a host of important physiological data can be extracted. Credit: Homayounfar et al., 10.1002/admt.202201313

To solve this problem, the team developed a sensor that keeps working even when hugged, sat upon, leaned on or otherwise squished by everyday interactions. The secret, which was detailed in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies, lies in vapor-printing clothing fabrics with piezoionic materials such as PEDOT-Cl (p-doped poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene-chloride). With this method, even the smallest body movement, such as a heartbeat, leads to the redistribution of ions throughout the sensor. In other words, the fabric turns the mechanical motion of the body into an electrical signal, which can then be monitored.

Image Graphs detailing the readings the sensor generates and images of commercial dynamometers. Credit: Homayounfar et al., 10.1002/admt.202201313

The wearable sense can perform grip-strength measurements that correlate with those produced by commercial dynamometers, as shown in D. Credit: Homayounfar et al., 10.1002/admt.202201313

Zohreh Homayounfar, lead author of the study and a graduate student at UMass Amherst, says that “this is the first fabric-based sensor allowing for real-time monitoring of sensitive target populations, from workers laboring in stressful industrial settings, to kids and rehabilitation patients.”

Image of the team’s new sensor makes use of PEDOT-Cl-coated cotton sandwiched between electrodes. Credit: Homayounfar et al., 10.1002/admt.202201313

The team’s new sensor makes use of PEDOT-Cl-coated cotton sandwiched between electrodes. Credit: Homayounfar et al., 10.1002/admt.202201313

Of particular advantage is that this all-fabric sensor can be worn in comfortable, loose-fitting clothing rather than embedded in tight-fitting fabrics or stuck directly onto the skin. This makes it far easier for the sensors to gather long-term data, such as heartbeats, respiration, joint movement, vocalization, step counts and grip strength—a crucial health indicator that can help clinicians track everything from bone density to depression.

Head shot of chemistry professor Mingxu You

Researcher Team Led by Prof. You Awarded Grant to Develop New RNA Fluorescence Imaging System

An interdisciplinary team led by Associate Professor Mingxu You (Chemistry) and including co-PI Assistant Professor Tingyi (Leo) Liu (Mechanical and Industrial Engineering) and Adjunct Assistant Professor Sallie Schneider (Veterinary and Animal Sciences), has been awarded a $606,774 grant by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to develop a novel multiplexed fluorescence imaging system for living cells.

The new imaging system will be used to study dynamic gene expression profiles and cellular heterogeneity, which will help researchers understand how diseased cells are different from healthy ones and how diseases emerge.

To advance general understanding of cells, the team will measure as many RNA signatures as possible in each individual cell and track how these different signatures can change over time and space.

Ultimately, researchers hope the project will result in an easily applicable, multiplexed, quantitative, and automated system that can be widely used in typical life science laboratories. It may also open the door for new applications in single-cell profiling for studying developmental biology, neuroscience, immunology, and oncology.

graduate student Dheeraj Krishan Agrohia

Dheeraj Krishan Agrohia Receives PPG Fellowship

Dheeraj Krshan Agrohia (Vachet group) received PPG Fellowship for outstanding research in the area of materials chemistry.

Research: Polymeric nanocarriers (PNCs) are versatile drug-delivery vehicles capable of delivering a variety of therapeutics. Quantitatively monitoring their in vivo biodistribution is essential for realizing their potential as next-generation delivery systems; however, existing quantification strategies are limited due to the challenges of detecting polymeric materials in complex biological samples. My research in the Vachet lab focuses on developing measurement tools to study how PNCs and their cargos are distributed in vivo. With the support of the PPG fellowship, I will be working to develop a new mass spectrometry imaging method that can quantitatively monitor how multiple distinct PNCs and their cargos are distributed in different organs in a single set of experiments. This multiplexing capability should improve the design and optimization of PNCs by minimizing biological variability and reducing analysis time, effort, and cost. Also, it will minimize the need for multiple animals.

graduate student Kimberly Bolduc Pereira

Kimberly (Bolduc) Pereira Receives PPG Fellowship and Donald Kuhn Graduate Fellowship Award

Kimberly (Bolduc) Pereira (Walsh group) received the PPG Fellowship for outstanding research in the area of materials chemistry, and the Donald Kuhn Graduate Fellowship Award for outstanding research and an interest in pursuing a career in research or teaching. Research: The development of methods to enable the recovery of metastable high-pressure phases to ambient conditions remains an outstanding challenge in materials science. One route that remains unexplored is the use of shockwaves to rapidly decompress samples, analogous to the temperature quenching methods used to recover metastable high-temperature phases in steel processing. In our research, we use in situ X-ray diffraction to explore the impact that dynamic compression and decompression has on the location of phase boundaries in simple systems, with the goal of detecting and quantifying the kinetic effects that influence the phase transformations. We are specifically interested in transition metals, alloys, and binary oxide and carbide materials. These materials, while relatively straightforward stoichiometrically-speaking, are not well understood in terms of their phase transformations under extreme conditions. In addition, noticeable differences exist between the phases observed under static compression and the phases observed under dynamic compression. Quantifying the crystal structure in the dynamic compression regime could inform fundamental understanding of atomic bonding, and could also offer insight into planetary processes as well as the makeup of our earth’s interior. To reach these conditions and perform our experiments, we travel to some of the brightest and most powerful light sources in the world including synchrotrons and XFELs, and collaborate with scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Chemistry Prof. James Walsh

Walsh Receives NSF CAREER Award

Assistant Professor James Walsh has received the NSF CAREER award for his project "Harnessing Microfabrication for Chemical Control During High Pressure Synthesis of Non-Equilibrium Carbides." Through this award, funded by the Solid State and Materials Chemistry program in the Division of Materials Research at NSF, the Walsh Lab will develop a completely new approach to high-pressure synthesis that uses cutting-edge microfabrication methods to precisely tune elemental ratios to a much higher precision than is possible with standard methods. This will provide reliable synthetic access to non-equilibrium materials that are otherwise difficult to target experimentally.

graduate student Rui Huang

Rui Huang Awarded Marvin D. Rausch Fellowship

Rui Huang (Rotello lab) research: Bioorthogonal catalysis offers a unique strategy to modulate biological processes through the in situ generation of therapeutic agents. However, the direct application of bioorthogonal transition metal catalysts (TMCs) in complex media poses numerous challenges due to issues of limited biocompatibility, poor water solubility, and catalyst deactivation in biological environments. In the Rotello lab, these issues can be addressed by integrating TMCs into polymers to generate bioorthogonal “polyzymes”. Polyzymes are able to activate imaging and therapeutic agents from their inactive precursors, creating on-demand “drug factories''. Through the engineering of host polymer structures, I have synthesized a series of polyzymes that are biodegradable, biostable, and/or stimuli responsive. The therapeutic potential of polyzymes has been demonstrated in vitro for the treatment of both bacterial biofilms and cancers, with enhanced efficacy and reduced side effects.

graduate student Ahsan Ali

Ahsan Ausaf Ali Receives Paul Hatheway Terry Scholarship

Ahsan Ausaf Ali (You Group) received the Paul Hatheway Terry Scholarship in recognition of excellence in research. Research: The cell membrane is a very important component of cells which plays a critical role in cell signaling and cell-cell communication. Since the cell membrane is fluidic in nature, molecules in it such as lipids and proteins are generally free to associate and dissociate resulting in short lived dynamic interactions. Such short-lived interactions are important because they allow the membrane to modulate the formation signaling platforms in response to specific stimuli. Unfortunately, visualizing these transient interactions has proved to be challenging due to their fast nature and the complex heterogenous composition of membranes. In my research, we use short DNA tags to label certain lipids on the cell membrane which allows us to stabilize these short-lived interactions for long enough so that they may be imaged and quantified. This was achieved by developing a “DNA Zipper” probe where DNA hybridization between different lipid-DNA conjugates may “zip” two transiently interacting probes together to various degrees depending on the DNA sequence chosen. From our experiments we were able to visualize various lipid-lipid interactions and observe their relative strength. We further used our DNA Zipper probe to investigate and visualize the heterogeneity of the cell membrane and its role in several important biological processes including immune cell activation and the progression of cancer. Our current goal is to apply our DNA Zipper to membrane proteins as an approach to quantify transient protein interactions and screen various small molecules which may impact these interactions.