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K-State Today

April 18, 2019

Two K-Staters receive prestigious NSF CAREER awards

Submitted by Beth Montelone

Two K-State faculty members have recently received the Faculty Early Career Development Award, or CAREER award, which is one of the most coveted awards for researchers working in areas funded by the National Science Foundation: Ryan Rafferty, assistant professor of chemistry, and Yi Zheng, assistant professor of grain science and industry.

CAREER awards are five-year grants for early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. They differ from standard NSF research proposals in that those submitted to CAREER must address the career goals and plans of the investigator and present an integrated plan that includes both their future research and educational activities.

Rafferty's project involves development of both scientific and educational tools to address barriers of various sorts; specifically, complex biological barriers such as separating the brain from the bloodstream of mammals and those of gram-negative bacteria. In both cases, the barriers have evolved to restrict transport in order to protect the brain or the bacteria. Rafferty will design new small molecule classes based on the known physical and chemical properties of the membranes that are based on versatile core scaffolds. Applications include intelligent drug design and antibiotic development.

His educational plan includes designing new undergraduate and graduate courses based on novel teaching strategies that are intended to penetrate barriers to learning, as well as outreach to K-12 students and the public.

"Through this gracious funding by the NSF, they have allowed our lab to continue our investigations into the development of universal transporting agents to cross the blood-brain barrier and the dual membrane of gram-negative bacteria," Rafferty said. "To accomplish this task, our laboratory exploits our total synthesis campaigns of complex natural products to construct unique and targeted chemical screening libraries to elucidate the chemical space required to facilitate enhanced transport. We hope that through our efforts that new and innovative investigations into brain functions, mapping disease states of the brain, and the development of new classes of antibacterial agents can be achieved."

Zheng's long-term career goals are to establish internationally recognized research and educational programs in biomanufacturing. Different from traditional manufacturing, biomanufacturing uses cells as a factory to produce bio-based products of industrial interest which have been historically produced through conventional petroleum refinery. This CAREER project is specifically focused on microalgae, microscopic algae from either freshwater or marine systems, which can be employed to produce food, feed, fuels and chemicals. He plans to develop and study the properties of a novel thermoresponsive polymer material that will facilitate both microalga cell harvesting and intracellular product recovery, which is a relatively inexpensive and environmentally friendly technology. The material and approach to be developed could potentially influence the entire field of biomanufacturing.

"This CAREER award is a foundation and springboard for taking microalgae research to a point where cell enrichment and product recovery are not economic hurdles anymore," Zheng said. 

A biomanufacturing curriculum as well as K-12 and public education about biomanufacturing are the approaches Zheng will bring to his educational plan. He believes it is very important for the biomanufacturing community to educate the public in this area about what the new manufacturing technologies mean for our society today and going forward, as well as to encourage the awareness of multidimensional sustainability in energy, environment, economics and society.

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