UMass Amherst Biophysicist Receives $500,000 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Early Career Award

AMHERST, Mass. – Biophysicist Nikhil S. Malvankar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has received a coveted five-year, $500,000 career award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) to assist him in moving from advanced postdoctoral training into a faculty position.

Malvankar, the first UMass Amherst scientist to receive this award, works with physicist Mark Tuominen and microbiologist Derek Lovley. He plans to develop new, physics-based nanometer-resolution tools to guide treatment of diseases caused by pathogenic bacteria and to improve understanding of how human and bacterial cells interact. 

Malvankar, Tuominen and Lovley recently discovered a new form of biological electron transport in which protein filaments, also known as pili or microbial nanowires, exhibit a metallic-like conductivity similar to the conductivity of synthetic organic conducting polymers. Before Malvankar’s findings, it was universally believed that metallic-like conductivity was impossible in biological systems. 

 With this award, Malvankar will focus on pili and biofilms of disease-producing bacteria. As he explains, “Biofilms account for over 80 percent of microbial infections in the body. We are developing new tools that have nanometer-resolution to visualize electrical charges involved in disease-causing bacteria. Once we understand more about how the process works, these generic tools can be applied to develop new treatment approaches to many different bacterial diseases.”

At present, Malvankar says, “Static and dynamic charges are involved in many bacterial infections but right now there is no imaging technique that can monitor their effects. By using scanning probe microscopy combined with microelectrodes under physiological conditions, we can study these processes mechanistically at the molecular level as well as at the cellular level.” 

Lovley says “Nikhil is highly deserving of this very selective and prestigious award. His innovative biophysical studies are making important fundamental contributions to the understanding of basic biological phenomena and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund career award offers him the opportunity to develop a new field of inquiry in pathogenic microbiology.”

Tuominen adds, “Nikhil has made highly significant discoveries in the science of electron transport in microbial protein nanofilaments. He is a proven leader who uniquely combines his knowledge of physics and biology to advance biophysics. The well-deserved Burroughs Wellcome Fund award will enable Nikhil to make exciting innovations in an emerging research area.”

 John Burris, president of BWF, the private foundation dedicated to advancing biomedical research, says, “This funding supports individual scientists poised to become leaders in their fields. These awards are highly competitive and we look forward to seeing great things happen.”


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