[Nanovaccine Institute members] Nigel Reuel and Hua Bai are two of five Iowa State University researchers who have been selected to receive Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) awards from the National Science Foundation during the 2021 fiscal and academic year, adding to the record-breaking number of university recipients last year.
Considered to be the most prestigious award of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the CAREER program supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education. The five 2021 Iowa State CAREER awards represent more than $4 million in federal funding earmarked to pursue research emphases ranging from exploring cellular functions to implementing the use of smart data.
This year’s recipients represent continued excellence of Iowa State scholars in pursuing and obtaining competitive CAREER program awards. Between 2016 and 2019, the NSF awarded 24 CAREER awards to Iowa State early-career scholars, followed by a record-breaking 10 more — totaling $2.7 million in program funding — in 2020.
“Our CAREER award recipients truly embody the ‘Innovate at Iowa State’ spirit,” said Vice President for Research Peter Dorhout. “These early-career faculty are creating new knowledge and developing new technologies that have the potential to deliver innovative solutions for challenges that impact our state and the world around us. Just as importantly, they’re guiding and shaping ISU students through engaged research so they will become the next wave of researchers who continue to identify and develop solutions to society’s greatest challenges.”
Nigel Reuel, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering
Proposal Title: “Real-Time Control of Cell Differentiation Using Reinforcement Learning”
Total Intended Award Amount: $554,338
Differentiated stem cells are a promising method for treating many chronic diseases, but they are limited by costly manufacturing methods. Reuel’s project will test the hypothesis that active control (machine learning assisted learning from real-time sensors) will improve the reproducibility of these cells over current static recipes. The quality and manufacturing process of cell therapies must be improved to provide a more sustainable cost point and so all cells have a necessary level of therapeutic activity. This research project will develop a framework that can be applied to any cell differentiation pathway and can be updated as new real-time sensors are developed, stimulation cues are discovered, and new disease targets are identified. In addition, the project will improve student and public understanding of machine learning approaches through an interactive art exhibit. This work will enable practical manufacturing of regenerative medicines designed to replace damaged or diseased cells, as well as education of machine learning-based numerical methods and process control strategies for engineers.
Hua Bai, assistant professor of genetics, development, and cell biology
Proposal Title: “Understanding Peroxisomal Stress Responses”
Total Intended Award Amount: $1,212,704
The microscopic compartments inside cells that facilitate oxidation reactions and are involved in the biosynthesis and breakdown of fatty acids, are known as peroxisomes. Healthy, functioning peroxisomes are vital to maintaining cell equilibrium, but our knowledge and understanding of peroxisomes is limited. Using advanced techniques – CRISPR-based screening and genome editing, live-cell imaging tools – Bai and his team hope to uncover cellular “surveillance pathways” and stress responses induced by defective peroxisomes. The educational goal of this project is to provide all STEM students with hands-on experiences in genetic and cell biology research in a supportive learning environment that encourages creative problem-solving and promotes critical thinking skills. These educational activities will include: developing an innovative undergraduate laboratory course to provide students with hands-on experience in genome editing and imaging techniques; and engaging undeclared students in genetic and cell biology research through partnership with “The Sky is the Limit” learning community. These integrated education programs will engage larger and more diverse groups of undergraduate students in biology research and make basic research more inclusive.
—By Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research, 7/12/21