UMass Amherst Engineer Jun Yao Receives NSF CAREER Grant to Develop Nanoscale Sensors to Measure Mechanical and Electrical Properties in Cells

Jun Yao
Jun Yao

AMHERST, Mass. – Jun Yao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has received a five-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop nanoscale sensors that can measure both the mechanical and electrical properties of a cell at the same time. The grant is from NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program.

Yao says his research can lead to more precise biomedical devices for disease modeling, drug screening and health diagnostics. Because the cell is a basic functional element in biology, its mechanical and electrical behaviors are two key properties that indicate cell state and consequently are important for health monitoring, disease diagnosis and tissue repair.

“A comprehensive assessment of cellular status requires the knowledge of both mechanical and electrical properties at the same time,” says Yao. That is challenging because the two properties are usually measured by different sensors and the degree of cell perturbation, or disturbance of cell function, increases with the number of sensors used.

Yao says combining both measurements into one tiny sensor provides a means of acquiring information with as little disturbance to cell functioning as possible.

This project aims to develop a type of nanoscale sensor, which can simultaneously measure both of these basic properties in a cell. This sensor technology can lead to more precise biomedical devices for a variety of uses and the concept of merging multiple sensing functions in one device will broaden the capabilities of general bio-interface engineering, Yao says.

Eventually the biomimetic sensor concept will lead to efficient, parallel and multi-thread cellular monitoring and communication. The developed sensor technology will also provide a new tool for fundamental studies in cell mechanics and electrophysiology, Yao says.

Yao, in addition to his faculty appointment in the College of Engineering, is affiliated with the Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which combines deep and interdisciplinary expertise from 29 departments on the UMass Amherst campus to translate fundamental research into innovations that benefit humankind.

He heads an interdisciplinary research team within IALS’ Center for Personalized Health Monitoring. His group is interested in synthesis and engineering micro/nanoscale materials to enable novel devices, sensors and their integration on rigid or soft frameworks for functional electronic or bioelectronic systems.