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USD-Led Research Group Receives $1 Million Grant from W.M. Keck Foundation

The University of San Diego is the lead institution on a three-year, $1 million science and engineering research grant awarded by the W.M. Keck Foundation for a project that could produce a major breakthrough in materials engineering.

"The aim of this research is to create a revolutionary class of autonomous materials that can harness biologically-derived molecular components to perform user-defined motion and work," states an excerpt from the abstract of the titled project, Building an Artificial Motile Tissue through Self Organized Rhythmic Stiffening. “While future technology demands will require such autonomously active materials, humans currently have no capability to design or build similar non-equilibrium, multicomponent systems.”

The research project is led by Rae Robertson-Anderson, PhD, associate professor and chair of USD's Physics and Biophysics Department and the grant's principal investigator (PI). It is supported by faculty co-PIs from three other institutions: Associate Professor of Physics Jennifer Ross, PhD, University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Michael Rust, PhD, assistant professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at University of Chicago; and Associate Professor of Physics Moumita Das, PhD, at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology.

Their proposed solution?

The team seeks to create a revolutionary class of autonomous materials that can perform motion and work by harnessing biologically-derived molecular components. Specifically, the team will fuse the skeletal proteins from cells with circadian clock proteins to engineer a suite of tunable materials that can autonomously stiffen and soften. This revolutionary approach to materials engineering has the potential to create an entirely new class of “living” materials that can not only intelligently respond to external signals, but also anticipate future demands, Robertson-Anderson explains.

The research is truly a collaborative effort with each institution playing an important role, she adds. “USD will engineer the materials and measure their mechanical properties, UMass-Amherst will assist in fabrication of the materials and characterize their structural properties, University of Chicago will engineer and optimize the circadian clock system to activate the materials, and RIT will develop mathematical models to guide material design.”

Research Reputation Grows 

The Keck Research Program aims to fund projects that are “distinctive and novel in their approach, question the prevailing paradigm, or have the potential to break open new territory in their field.”

While her project is a chance for a breakthrough discovery, equally important to Robertson-Anderson is what the grant award means for USD’s reputation as a leading undergraduate research institution.

“This helps put us on the map and show that we’re a university that does high-caliber research,” Robertson-Anderson said. “The fact that we’re the lead institution on the grant, even though UMass and University of Chicago are two of the top research institutes in the country, is really powerful.

“I think this opens the door for other USD faculty interested in applying for grants of this caliber and prestige,” she continued. This is the first research grant from the Keck Foundation awarded to USD. Keck does not usually fund research at undergraduate institutions — further demonstrating the significance of the award to USD.

USD received two prior grants from Keck but they were funded under their Undergraduate Education Program rather than their Research Program. These grants involved the creation of the Office of Undergraduate Research and support for the Humanities Center.

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The foundation’s grant program is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education. For more information, please visit the foundation’s website, www.wmkeck.org.

Student Research Opportunities 

Securing the grant affords the institutions with the ability to hire student researchers in their respective labs. Robertson-Anderson says Shea Ricketts, who just graduated in May with a biophysics degree and has been a key member of her lab since Summer 2016, has been hired as a full-time lab researcher.

“What I’m looking forward to most is being able to give undergraduate students the opportunity to contribute to this exciting research. Some of the grant money will be used to fund Shea to continue the great work she’s been doing. Most of the preliminary data that went into our Keck proposal was collected by Shea,” she said.

Current students in the lab who were trained by Ricketts as well as a post-doctoral researcher will also work on the project.

Origin of the Project 

The initial collaboration for Robertson-Anderson, Ross and Rust came at 2015 conference in Arizona connected to Scialog: Molecules Come to Life, a two-year program jointly sponsored by Research Corporation for Science Advancement and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Scialog supports research, intensive dialog, and community building to address scientific challenges of global significance. At this conference, members come together to examine and formulate ways to approach high-risk discovery research on untested ideas and form new collaborations.

Put together randomly at this particular Scialog, the three professors bonded and from it emerged a project proposal. “We had an idea that we could make circadian oscillators link and unlink cytoskeleton scaffolding proteins so you get material that would tense up and fluidize and tense up and fluidize over a 24-hour cycle,” Robertson-Anderson recalled. “It seemed crazy, but we wrote the proposal and got $50,000. After a year, we applied for another year of funding and got another $50,000. We weren’t able to make a lot of progress with the limited seed funding, but it was enough for some preliminary tests and to make us really think, ‘let’s try this.’”

Two years prior, Robertson-Anderson earned a $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for a biomaterials program for elucidating the material properties of complex tunable biopolymer networks using single-molecule nano stress-strain transducers and sensors. Her work in that project was a lead-in for what she’s been connected to ever since.

“A lot of what we were trying to do (at Scialog) was laying the groundwork. Dr. Ross and I were focusing on creating a scaffolding biomaterial, which overlapped with my CAREER Award initiatives. Rust was focusing on optimizing the circadian oscillator function outside of biological cell. With the end goal of combining these systems. We needed to analyze if it would work or not and we spent a lot of time on diagnostics. We realized we needed to create the tools to diagnose and characterize this revolutionary material before trying to actually make the material. That’s what the Scialog money gave us. We developed tools and created the components for the material so when we went to apply for the Keck grant, we could show them that we’d been working together for a few years and had the tools to not only build the material, but diagnosis it and characterize it.”

Bringing it All Together 

Now comes the important part: making it happen. The Keck grant provides the means for the next steps to occur. In the next three years, those steps can take the USD-led project from potential to reality.

“I’m very excited. For the next three years we have the funds needed to make our crazy vision a reality. Each institution will have researchers working full-time on this project and, as a result, I see things moving much more quickly. I’m excited to see the progress,” Robertson-Anderson said. “We have two well-oiled systems now and we just have to bring them together. With this opportunity, we will actually get to create this material and see it autonomously do what we’re proposing it will do. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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