The award is presented by the Materials Research Institute and recognizes interdisciplinary materials research at Penn State that yields innovative and unexpected results. The award has expanded this year to include four categories: Junior Faculty, Non-Tenure Faculty and Research Staff, Post-Doctoral, and Graduate Student. The award exists thanks to a gift from Della and Rustum Roy, who are both late alumni of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and long-serving faculty in the college.
This year’s winners were announced at the 2022 Materials Day event in October. They include in the Junior Faculty category, Aida Ebrahimi, Thomas and Sheila Roell Early Career Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, and Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering (courtesy). In the Non-Tenure Faculty and Research Staff category, the winners include Nichole Wonderling, X-ray scattering manager, Materials Research Institute (MRI), and Fabien Grisé, associate research professor of astronomy and astrophysics. In the Post-Doctoral category, the winner is Lin Wang, postdoctoral scholar in mechanical engineering, and in the Graduate Student category, the winners include Akhil Dodda, engineering science and mechanics doctoral student, and Kunyan Zhang, doctoral candidate in electrical engineering.
Ebrahimi’s research revolves around advancing biosensors and bioanalytical platforms for health monitoring through a multidisciplinary approach which involves materials and device engineering, devising novel sensing modalities, and convergence with advanced data analytics.
“Applications and potential impact of these innovations are diverse and range from noninvasive and affordable medical diagnostics for early disease detection, drug screening, food safety, and environmental monitoring to life science research related to microbial cells or elucidating the role of therapeutic factors in reducing symptoms of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease,” Ebrahimi said.
Sheikhi’s multifaceted research via his Bio-Soft Materials Laboratory (B-SMaL) focuses primarily on micro- and nanoengineering of natural or semi-natural materials to develop functional soft matter/biomaterials with tailored structure-property relationships for health care and environmental applications.
“Our overarching goal is to provide transformative platforms based on renewable resources that can set the stage for affordable, widespread technologies with immediate benefits for humans and ecosystems,” Sheikhi said. “Together, these platforms show the power of chemistry in harnessing nature’s building blocks to develop eminent, cost-effective technologies for improving the quality of modern life.”
In Wonderling’s current role as manager of the X-ray Scattering facility in MRI’s Materials Characterization Laboratory, she manages the operations of the lab’s X-ray diffraction, particle characterization, surface area and thermal analysis facilities.
“I believe that the primary impact of my work lies in the fact that I have trained hundreds of students to use X-ray diffraction as a tool in their research,” Wonderling said. “The students that I have supported now work at Intel, 3M, Apple, Dow, NASA, John Hopkins, Amazon and more as researchers, engineers, materials scientists and professors.”
Grisé’s research focuses on developing new technology for NASA’s future space telescopes, and most specifically on a certain type of optics called gratings that are used to split light into its primary constituents. This effect is similar to the rainbow pattern that can be seen when shining light on the surface of a CD or DVD. Gratings allow astronomers to study and understand the physics at play in stars, galaxies, black hole systems and more.
“Observing the universe is difficult: celestial objects are located at great distances and are very faint,” Grisé said. “Therefore, astronomy as a discipline has always required the development of new technologies to achieve its science goals. Many of those have found their way in our everyday life, such as GPS, medical imaging and sensors for image capture found in cameras.”
Focusing on bio-inspired materials, Wang translates the design principles of natural materials to synthetic materials using cutting-edge fabrication technologies.
“Nature can always provide inspiration for the design of advanced materials,” Wang said. “After evolving for billions of years, many plants and insects have developed intriguing properties that can be used to address grand challenges facing humans.”
Dodda’s doctoral research focused on implementing energy-efficient optoelectronic systems for sensing, storage, computing and developing novel security primitives using two-dimensional materials. This research would help to meet security/privacy needs in the rapidly evolving digital era, such as a smart and secure Internet of Things.
“With the emergence of the Internet of Things and its critical role in our day-to-day applications, securing information from unsavory hands has become a greater concern than ever before,” Dodda said.
Zhang’s research focuses on improving the sensitivity of biological sensors using nanomaterials for early detection of life-threatening medical conditions that enables best-case treatment options and increasing survival rates.
“The improved sensitivity of biological sensors can realize noninvasive detection by monitoring biomarkers in sweat or saliva other than in blood, and such biological sensors could also be widely applicable to a range of diseases or even subtypes of certain diseases,” Zhang said.