Materials Research Institute

Seed-grant recipients to put a human face on materials research

Six different Materials Matter at the Human Level seed grants were awarded to researchers by the Materials Research Institute and the College of Engineering. Pictured is the Millennium Science Complex on the University Park campus.  Credit: Materials Research InstituteAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Materials Research Institute (MRI) and the College of Engineering have announced the recipients of the Materials Matter at the Human Level seed grants. The grants were developed to continue the history of MRI and the College of Engineering partnering to fund materials projects that benefit humankind, including those aimed at improving the health and economic development of under-resourced populations.  

These projects engage undergraduate and graduate students and are led by faculty principal investigators. Topics include materials innovation, characterization, outreach and social engagement to meet global challenges such as public health, clean water, food supply, housing and shelter, energy resources and other issues.  

“We received very strong entries that speak to the innovative depth in which researchers at Penn State think about the translation and impact of their work at the humanitarian level, so the choice of grantees was a difficult one,” said Clive Randall, director of the Materials Research Institute (MRI) and distinguished professor of materials science and engineering. “Those we selected are destined to make an impact but the other proposed projects will likely receive funding from other sources as well because they are so worthy. It made me proud to see such thoughtful applications of research, and it was good that selecting recipients was such a challenge.” 

The grants are the result of a collaboration between MRI and the College of Engineering around the mutual humanitarian interests of each organization. 

“The College of Engineering is delighted to partner with MRI to seed research that will make a direct difference in people’s lives, benefiting communities that might typically be underserved by research and development,” said George Lesieutre, associate dean for research and graduate programs for the College and professor of aerospace engineering and acoustics. “Our faculty members strive to have an impact and are excited about this opportunity, focused this year on topics ranging from affordable safe housing to clean water and health — and we look forward to their joint successes.” 

The grant awardees include:   

"Smartphone-Based Diagnostics of Structural Health of Wood for Low-Income Households"

Saurabh Basu assistant professor of industrial engineering, and a team of researchers including Esther Obonyo, associate professor of engineering design and architectural engineering, and Heather Ligler, assistant teaching professor of architecture, conceived a project that will work to develop a low-cost diagnostic tool for evaluating the structural quality of wood in low-income housing. This would have a focus on moisture damage and the potential for black mold. It will use photographs and other forms of mechanical testing based on smartphone devices for the early diagnosis of issues. The team also includes David DeVallance, a wood scientist in the University of Primorks, Slovenia, as a scientific advisor.  

"Renewable Bacterial Cellulose Membranes for Water Purification"

Primary investigator Xueyi Zhang, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and co-primary investigator Jeffrey Catchmark, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, will work to solve global water purification issues, based around a World Health Organization finding that only 71% of the world’s population had access to a safe, local water service. Zhang’s team will strive to develop a solution that uses bacterial cellulose, a biodegradable natural cellulose produced by certain types of bacteria that has large pores, to create a new type of water purification membrane. 

"Nurturing and Enhancing STEM High School Education through First-Hand Learning in Pujehun District, Sierra Leone"  

Joseph Vandy Sengeh, graduate student in materials science and engineering, and Ismaila Dabo, associate professor of materials science and engineering, are leading a project to help address the lack of access to hands-on laboratory experiences in high-school education in Sierra Leone. Sengeh, who hails from Pujehun, Sierra Leone, hopes to remedy this by providing laboratory kits and supplies for 200-300 students in Pujehun District, Sierra Leone. The goal is to transform how students learn and view STEM disciplines by engaging them early in well-designed laboratory experiences and potentially inspiring them to pursue a college education. 

"Sustainable Leather Produced by Mycelium and Squid Ring Teeth Proteins"

Josephine Wee, assistant professor of food science and Melik Demirel, Huck Endowed Chair Professor of Biomimetics, Engineering Science and Mechanics, will lead a team to develop a sustainable material based on cellular agriculture that does not rely on limited plant or animal resource nor environmentally polluting petroleum-based products. They will develop a strong replacement for leather and silk using squid ring teeth protein and mycelium, a fiber from fungi.  

"Lightweight Concrete for 3D Printed Low-Cost Housing" 

A team overseen by Aleksandra Radlińska, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, plans to develop an innovative method to create concrete materials using a 3D-printable concrete material and a new paradigm for automated construction. They will work to develop a series of new lightweight 3D-printed environmentally friendly concrete formulations that include partial replacement of sand with cork and/or partial replacement of coarse aggregate by recycled concrete aggregate. 

"HEAL-POWDER: Accessible, Low-cost, Ready-to-use, Antibacterial Powders That Accelerate Wound Healing"

Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering, will work with a group of collaborators from the College of Medicine to solve the problem of under-resourced populations who face nonhealing wounds due to malnutrition, infection, failure of blood supply and failure of delivery of care. Sheikhi’s team will work to develop an accessible, low-cost, ready-to-use, antibacterial biomaterial that can be applied to wounds to provide a nurturing microenvironment for cellular infiltration, growth and differentiation. This in turn will stimulate the regeneration of native tissues while preventing bacterial infections. 

Last Updated October 29, 2021