Two UMass Amherst Chemical Engineers Win CAREER Awards from NSF

AMHERST, Mass. - Two faculty members in the chemical engineering department at the University of Massachusetts, Susan Roberts and Alex Zheng, have won prestigious CAREER awards from the National Science Foundation. These highly competitive four-year, $200,000 awards are granted to faculty under the age of 35. With these two awards, faculty at the College of Engineering have won 11 CAREER or Presidential Young Investigator awards from the National Science Foundation.

"I''m delighted that the College of Engineering continues to hire such high-quality faculty," said Joseph Goldstein, dean of the College. "These faculty raise the standard for our teaching and research programs and allow us to build a better academic program for our students."

Assistant Professor Susan Roberts won the award for her research in "Optimizing Synthesis of Valuable Products from Plant Cell Cultures." Her work focuses on optimizing the production of pharmaceuticals in cell culture systems - specifically, with the drug Taxol, a leading anti-cancer agent approved by the FDA for the treatment of breast, ovarian, and lung cancers. Taxol is a product of the slow-growing yew tree, and it takes three 100-year-old trees to treat one cancer patient. "If we can find an alternative supply source [i.e., plant cell culture] for Taxol, then that will help in providing enough of the drug for patient treatments and clinical trials," Roberts said.

Roberts is also working to optimize and stabilize the production of Taxol from plant cells. "These plant cells are unpredictable," Roberts said. "They''re so variable in Taxol production that one month they will produce high levels of Taxol and a month later they could be producing almost no Taxol." Such variability makes it hard for drug companies to produce a consistent, steady supply of plant-derived drugs; her work looks to reduce the variability of the process. Roberts joined the University in 1998.

Assistant Professor Alex Zheng has received the CAREER award for his research, "Designing Control Systems for Large-Scale Nonlinear Chemical Processes." The nonlinearity (i.e., it does not always follow that doubling the amount of raw material will produce twice the amount of product) and the high number of variables in chemical processes make designing a control system challenging.

"A control system," Zheng explains, "is an additional system that you put on an existing system to carry out your command automatically. For example, you would put a temperature control system in your home to automatically control the home temperature.
The idea of putting a control system in a chemical plant is to enable the plant to be operated in the best way in terms of safety, efficiency, and cost."

Furthermore, factors such as product quality and environmental regulations must be taken into account. Other common concerns include how to make more of the product from the same amount of raw materials, and how to conserve energy, according to Zheng. Much of his work is channeled through the Process Design and Control Center at the University, where Zheng works with companies such as GE Plastics, DuPont, and Eastman Chemicals. Zheng joined the faculty at UMass in 1996; this year he also received the Outstanding Teaching Award from the College of Engineering.