Pitt | Swanson Engineering
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Jan

Jan
16
2020

The Difference the Right Tools Can Make

MEMS

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 16, 2019) —  Sometimes, in order to understand the big picture, you need to start by assessing the smallest of details. It’s a truth that engineers know well — selecting the right materials can mean the success or failure of a given application. As technology advances, researchers have assessed engineering materials at the microscopic level for applications ranging from nanomachines to semiconductors, specialized coatings to robotics. For researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, looking closely enough to engineer materials for cutting-edge applications would not have been possible without the generous $1 million gift that Thomas F. Dudash provided in 2018. Mr. Dudash, an alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh who received his bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering in 1960, never imagined that he’d have a million dollars to donate for advanced research. After a lifelong career with Allegheny Ludlum, he wanted to share his success with the next generation of materials engineers. The gift was designated for the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS), the successor to the metallurgical engineering program. The gift enabled the Department to purchase specialized sample holders that allow researchers to make in situ observations of materials behavior at the nano-scale using transmission electron microscopy. Those observations have led to foundational discoveries that are crucial for materials development. Scott X. Mao, MEMS professor, uses a specially designed sample holder to study how metals elongate and deform at the atomic level. Microelectronic mechanical systems rely on components made from microscopic structures of these metals, but metals behave differently at such a reduced length scale. Understanding the mechanical behavior of nanostructured metallic materials will enable the further development of strong and reliable components for advanced nanomechanical devices. Without such holder, it’s impossible to carry out an atomic scaled mechanical and electrical experiments under the most advanced high resolution electron microscope to achieve the understanding. Tevis Jacobs, assistant professor in MEMS, was able to acquire a specialized holder, which enables research advancing the understanding of micro- and nano-surfaces and engineering more stable nanoparticles. Nanoparticles play an important role in advanced industries and technologies, from electronics and pharmaceuticals to catalysts and sensors. Because they can be as small as 10 atoms in diameter, they are susceptible to coarsening with continued use, reducing their functionality and degrading performance. Jacobs received a $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for this work that will utilize the specialized holder to directly study and measure adhesion properties of nanoparticles and their supporting substrates. Thanks to Mr. Dudash’s gift, Jacobs and his team were able to procure the only commercially-available tool that can manipulate the materials as precisely as is necessary to perform their impactful research. The gift also enabled Assistant Professor Markus Chmielus’s research analyzing 3D-printed denture frames. His group has used a SkyScan 1272 micro-computed tomography (microCT) scanner – purchased and maintained using gift funds - to export an accurate model of an existing denture, then used binder jet 3D-printing to reproduce the model. The scanner can analyze samples prior to 3D-printing as well to look for porosity and how that porosity changes when heat treatment is added, helping researchers develop a processing step to eliminate porosity. So far, the group has used the microCT to evaluate densities of green and sintered binder jet 3D-printed metals, including nickel-based superalloys, functional magnetic materials, and a commonly used titanium alloy, Ti-6Al-4V. Anne Robertson, MEMS and BioE professor, and her team use the micro-CT in their NIH-supported work studying the causes for rupture of intracranial aneurysms (IAs). Robertson and her team used the specialized micro-CT equipment to analyze aneurysm tissue from patients and found that calcification is substantially more prevalent than previously thought. The micro-CT was able to identify microcalcifications as small as 3 micrometers. The team discovered differences in the types of calcification in ruptured versus unruptured aneurysms, made possible using the micro-CT system. This improved understanding should lead to new therapeutic targets and, ultimately, improved outcomes for patients with aneurysms. Great innovations require the right tools. Thanks to Mr. Dudash’s gift, the MEMS Department has the tools to innovate, discover and create—tools that have produced an important base of knowledge that manufacturers will be building on for years to come. “It is generous gifts from donors like Mr. Dudash that enable advanced research and, ultimately, discovery,” said Brian Gleeson, Tack Chaired Professor and MEMS Department Chairman. “Moreover, the funds provided by Mr. Dudash are being used strategically to create specialized capabilities that greatly help to procure further funding from agencies and, hence, further bolster research activities.”
Maggie Pavlick
Jan
16
2020

Le Problème des Plastiques

Civil & Environmental

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 16, 2020) — Plastic pollution is one of the many pressing environmental problems we are facing. On Dec. 12 and 13, 2019, in Paris and Le Mans, France, Melissa Bilec - deputy director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Roberta A. Luxbacher Faculty Fellow the University of Pittsburgh -  was invited by the French Embassy in the U.S. and the French Government to provide her perspective on solutions to this demanding problem. Bilec’s work in circular economy solutions to plastic waste earned her an invitation to present her expertise to the Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment (OPECST). OPECST is composed of 18 members of the National Assembly and 18 senators, with the purpose of studying and assessing research that applies to policy decisions. Specifically, Bilec’s presentation will inform French politicians Angèle Préville, Senator for Lot, and Deputy Philippe Bolo, member of the National Assembly for Maine-et-Loire, as they lead a study on plastic pollution. “Complex problems like plastic waste require convergent, systems-level perspectives; circular economy solutions should be considered as a strong and viable solution to address plastic waste,” says Bilec. “I am grateful for the opportunity to share my expertise and ideas on designing products and processes to close loops with those who can enact them on the global stage.” Following the testimony to OPECST, Bilec was also invited to speak at workshop, “Responding to Plastic Pollution through Science: From Research to Action,” in Le Mans, France, which was attended by the Senator Preville and Deputy Bolo, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Embassy of France in the United States.
Maggie Pavlick
Jan
9
2020

Advancing Neural Stimulation: Kozai Designs a Wireless, Light-Activated Electrode

Bioengineering

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 9, 2020) … Neural stimulation is a pioneering technology that can be used to recover function and improve the quality of life for individuals who suffer from brain injury or disease. It serves an integral role in modern neuroscience research and human neuroprosthetics, including advancements in prosthetic limbs and brain-computer interfaces. A challenge that remains with this technology is achieving long-term and precise stimulation of a specific group of neurons. Takashi D-Y Kozai, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, recently received a $1,652,844 award from the National Institutes of Health (1R01NS105691-01A1) to develop an innovative solution to address these limitations. “Implantation of these devices causes a reactive tissue response which degrades the functional performance over time, thus limiting device capabilities,” Kozai explained. “Current electrical stimulation implants are tethered to the skull, which leads to mechanical strain in the tissue, and in turn, causes chronic inflammation and increases the possibility of an infection.” Kozai, who leads the Bio-Integrating Optoelectric Neural Interface Cybernetics Lab in the Swanson School of Engineering, will use the NIH award to develop a wireless in vivo stimulation technology that will enable precise neural circuit probing while minimizing tissue damage. In this design, the electrode will be implanted in the brain and activated by light - via the photoelectric effect - with a far-red or infrared laser source, which can sit outside of the brain. “This use of photostimulation removes the mechanical requirements necessary in traditional microstimulation technology and improves spatial selectivity of activated neurons for stable, long-term electrical stimulation,” Kozai said. His group found that photostimulation drives a more localized population of neurons when compared to electrical stimulation under similar conditions. When used, the activated cells were closer to the electrode, which indicates increased spatial precision. The proposed technology will be smaller than traditional photovoltaic devices but larger than nanoparticles to improve device longevity. “With this project, we hope to develop advanced neural probes that are capable of activating specific neurons for long periods of time and with great precision,” Kozai said. “This technology could significantly impact neuroscience research and ultimately the treatment of neurological injury and disease in humans.” ###

Jan
8
2020

2020 ChemE Faculty

Chemical & Petroleum, Open Positions

The Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh invites applications for a tenure-track faculty position at the assistant professor rank. Successful candidates are expected to show exceptional potential to become leaders in their respective fields, and to contribute to teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Department has internationally recognized programs in Energy and Sustainability, Catalysis and Reaction Engineering, Materials, Multi-Scale Modeling, and Biomedical engineering. Active collaborations exist with several adjacent centers, including the University of Pittsburgh Center for Simulation and Modeling, the Petersen Institute for Nanoscience and Engineering, the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, The University of Pittsburgh Center for Energy, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and the U.S. DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory. The department also has a broad strategic alliance with the Lubrizol Corporation, a leading specialty chemicals company, with a particular focus on process intensification. We are seeking faculty who can contribute strategically to departmental strengths, but outstanding applicants in all areas will be considered. Applications will only be accepted via submission through the following Interfolio link: http://apply.interfolio.com/72527. To ensure full consideration, applications must be received by February 28, 2020. Please address any inquiries (but not applications) to che@pitt.edu. Candidates from groups traditionally underrepresented in engineering are strongly encouraged to apply. One of the major strategic goals of the university is to “Embrace Diversity and Inclusion”; therefore, the candidate should be committed to high-quality teaching and research for a diverse student body and to assisting our department in enhancing diversity in all forms. The University of Pittsburgh is an EEO/AA/M/F/Vet/Disabled employer.

Jan
6
2020

Take heart: Pitt study reveals how relaxin targets cardiovascular disease

Bioengineering, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 6, 2020) … As a healthy heart ages, it becomes more susceptible to cardiovascular diseases. Though researchers have discovered that relaxin, an insulin-like hormone, suppresses atrial fibrillation (AF), inflammation, and fibrosis in aged rats, the underlying mechanisms of these benefits are still unknown. In a recent Scientific Reports paper, University of Pittsburgh graduate student Brian Martin discusses how relaxin interacts with the body’s signaling processes to produce a fundamental mechanism that may have great therapeutic potential. The study, “Relaxin reverses maladaptive remodeling of the aged heart through Wnt-signaling” (DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-53867-y) was led by Guy Salama, professor of medicine at Pitt, and Brian Martin, a graduate student researcher from the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering. “Relaxin is a reproductive hormone discovered in the early 20th century that has been shown to suppress cardiovascular disease symptoms,” said Martin. “In this paper, we show that relaxin treatment reverses electrical remodeling in animal models by activating canonical Wnt signaling - a discovery that reveals a fundamental underlying mechanism behind relaxin’s benefits.” A better understanding of how relaxin interacts with the body may improve its efficacy as a therapy to treat cardiovascular disease in humans. As the U.S. population ages, the rates of these age-associated diseases are expected to rise, requiring better treatment for this leading cause of death. According to a report from the American Heart Association, the total direct medical costs of cardiovascular disease are projected to increase to $749 billion in 2035. “A common problem in age-associated cardiovascular disease is altered electrical signaling required for proper heart contraction,” Martin explained. “When ions in the heart and their associated channels to enter or exit the heart are disrupted, complications occur.” “Natural, healthy aging has been shown to be accompanied by changes in structure and function,” Salama added. “For example, aged cardiomyocytes start to express embryonic contractile proteins and fewer voltage-gated Na+ channels by unknown mechanisms. The reversal of some aspects of the aging process by relaxin is mediated by the reactivation of Wnt canonical signaling which may partly explain mechanisms of the aging process.” The group’s study found that relaxin upregulated the prominent sodium channel, Nav1.5, in cells of heart tissue via a mechanism inhibited by the Wnt pathway inhibitor Dickkopf-1. “Wnt signaling is thought to be active primarily in the developing heart and inactive later in life,” Martin said. “However, we show that relaxin can reactivate Wnt signaling in a beneficial way to increase Nav1.5.” Increased Nav1.5 is associated with better electrical signaling in the heart may reduce susceptibility to cardiac rhythm disorders. “Further, we show that relaxin can also reverse the age-associated reduction in cell adhesion molecules and cell-cell communication proteins,” he continued. “In summary, relaxin appears to reverse problematic reductions or pathological reorganization of vital cardiac signaling proteins.” While these data provide new insight into relaxin’s mechanisms of action, further work is needed to understand the precise steps required for relaxin to alter Wnt signaling and if steps can be taken to directly alter Wnt signaling to provide its beneficial effects. ### Image caption: “Left ventricular tissue sections (7-µm thick) from aged rat hearts (24 months old) were labeled with the nuclear stain (DAPI-blue) and an antibody against β-catenin (green). Rats were treated with Relaxin (0.4 mg/kg/day for 2-weeks) (left panel) or with the control vehicle (sodium acetate) (right panel) and the tissue sections were imaged by confocal microscopy (600X magnification). Relaxin treatment (left) produced a marked positive remodeling of aged ventricles with a reduction of cell hypertrophy, improved organization of myofibrils and cell membrane compared to untreated, control aged hearts (right).” Credit: Dr. Guillermo Romero.

Jan
6
2020

MEMS Welcomes Two New Faculty Members

MEMS

Qihan Liu Qihan Liu Dr. Liu received his BS from the University of Science and Technology of China (Special Class for Gifted Young) in 2010 and his PhD from Harvard University in Materials Sciences and Mechanical Engineering in 2016. Since completing his PhD, Dr. Liu has worked at Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow in the Bioengineering Department studying the manufacturing of 3D nanofibrous scaffold for regenerative heart valves. Trained as a theorist during his PhD studies, Dr. Liu has developed a strong background in the mechanics and physics of soft materials, with expertise spanning elastic instability, fracture, rheology, interfacial phenomena, and multi-physics constitutive models. Paul Ohodnicki Paul Ohodnicki Dr. Ohodnicki received bachelor degrees in both Economics and Engineering Physics from the University of Pittsburgh. He earned his MS and Ph.D. degrees in Materials Science from Carnegie Mellon University in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Dr. Ohodnicki’s most recent position was Materials Scientist and Technical Portfolio Lead of the Functional Materials Team at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Pittsburgh. While at NETL, Dr. Ohodnicki received a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (2016) and was a finalist for the Service to America Promising Innovations Medal (2017). His research experience has spanned academia, industry, and the federal government. The main focus of Dr. Ohodnicki’s research is the synthesis, characterization, and integration of functional materials down to the nano-scale, together with component-level performance improvements through advanced materials engineering strategies. He has exploited advanced processing methods for both thin film and bulk nano-structured materials and nano-composites. These methods include additive manufacturing, thin film deposition, nanofabrication, and far-from equilibrium processing such as rapid solidification in addition to anisotropic processing in the presence of applied strain and magnetic fields. His research has been particularly impactful in the areas of soft magnetic materials and sensors for harsh service environments.

Jan
6
2020

NSF Grant Awarded

MEMS

Sung-Kwon Cho Microfluidics have had a tremendous impact on biotechnology, biosensors, health care, and more.  Conventional microfluidics are based on a micro channel network for continuous flow streams. In contrast, digital microfluidics use droplets as the operational element, which serve as carriers and reaction chambers eliminating the need for confining physical structures. The current method most commonly used to drive these droplets is through electrowetting on dielectric (EWOD). However, EWOD often suffers from limitations such as high voltage requirement and biofouling, hampering many real applications. Dr. Sung Kwon Cho, mechanical engineering professor, was awarded a $310,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to seek a straightforward pathway to a new digital microfluidic platform without the limitations of EWOD. The project is entitled, “Collaborative Research: Magnetically Actuated Black Silicon Ratchet Surfaces for Digital Microfluidics," and is in collaboration with Professor Seok Kim of the University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign. The proposed platform exploits a purely mechanical means to drive discrete liquid droplets in a rapid, flexible, programmable, and reconfigurable manner. The key mechanism is dynamically tuning surface morphology using magnetically-actuated anti-biofouling ratchet surfaces.  As a result, droplets are essentially driven mechanically, not electrically. This three-year collaborative research project will combine the expertise of Profs. Cho and Kim in mechanics, materials, manufacturing and microfluidics in order to achieve understanding and knowledge in the proposed system, and finally open up a new interdisciplinary research area across smart composite materials and digital microfluidics.