USD Professor Awarded $576,000 NSF Grant to Study Biopolymer Networks

Groundbreaking Research Could Lead to Bullet-proof Clothing and Other Novel Materials

Imagine a fabric that is comfortable for a soldier or police officer to wear but strong enough to protect against being shot. Or envision new implantable medicine pumps and hip prostheses that mimic both the mobility and strength of human muscles and bones.

Those products could someday become a reality through the work of researchers like University of San Diego assistant professor of physics Rae Anderson who has been awarded a $576,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study networks of biopolymers such as the protein actin which is ubiquitous in the cells of living organisms.

Anderson’s research will focus on measuring stresses and strains in biopolymer networks on the molecular level, something that has never been done before. Using a laser-based “tweezers technique” that she pioneered, Anderson will be exploring the mechanical behavior of these complex biopolymer networks.

“These actin networks exhibit very interesting and useful fluid and material properties which change depending on the specific environment,” Anderson said. “Some of these networks, for example, behave as a fluid when subject to a small force but become rigid and solid when a much stronger force is quickly applied,” she explained. This property could be used to develop the next generation of bullet-proof materials for the military and also has many other commercial and medical applications

“But to be able to harness the beauty of this unique property and tune it to fit specific parameters, we need to understand the molecular mechanisms that give rise to these properties,” she said.

“Professor Anderson’s research is important by itself, but it will also have a major impact on our department,” said Greg Severn, professor and chair of the USD Department of Physics. “With the grant, she will be able to develop new, advanced courses for the biophysics major offered at USD since 2011. Her pioneering work has already attracted a great deal of student interest in USD’s physics program and we are very pleased at the prospects for the future. It’s also clear that Professor Anderson’s future is very bright.”

Anderson is the third USD science professor in the last two years to receive the prestigious CAREER award given to professors who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research into their universities.

Lauren Benz, assistant professor of chemistry, received the NSF award earlier this year to study the capture of greenhouse gases. Assistant professor of chemistry Tim Clark received the award last year to research the development of metal catalysts that could simplify ways to access complex organic materials used by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

“To receive three of these prestigious awards in two years is really a testament to the caliber of our faculty,” said Mary Boyd, dean of USD’s College of Arts and Sciences. “They are given to the top professors in the early stages of their careers and really demonstrate the extraordinary opportunity that USD undergraduate students have to do cutting-edge research with some of the country’s top young professors.”

Along with other USD professors in science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) fields, Anderson will also be working with undergraduate students to develop a series of interactive science projects for an afterschool program in San Diego primarily serving first-generation immigrants.

About the University of San Diego

The University of San Diego sets the standard for an engaged, contemporary Catholic university where innovative Changemakers confront humanity’s urgent challenges. With more than 9,000 students from 69 countries and 50 states, USD is the youngest independent institution on the U.S. News & World Report list of top 100 universities in the United States. The university's eight academic divisions include the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Business, the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, the School of Law, the School of Leadership and Education Sciences, the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, and the Division of Professional and Continuing Education. USD's Envisioning 2024 strategic plan capitalizes on the university’s recent progress and aligns new strategic goals with current strengths to help shape a vision for the future as the university looks ahead to its 75th anniversary in the year 2024.