These 6 University Researchers Are Ready to Change the World With Their Inventions
A better, smarter 3-D printer. A gel that could speed up wound healing—and minimize scarring. Tattoos that could monitor your metabolism.
These are just a sampling of the big ideas the winners of Johnson & Johnson’s second annual WiSTEM2D Scholars Award Program are hoping to one day bring to market.
While the six winners hail from different disciplines, they have certain things in common: “Their science, their research, their design principles are on the cutting edge,” says Cat Oyler, Vice President, Global Public Health, Tuberculosis, Johnson & Johnson. “As leading academic professors, they’re also demonstrating an incredible commitment to furthering women’s careers.”
Oyler helps to oversee the Scholars Award Program, which was launched to help advance the careers of women studying science, technology, engineering, math, manufacturing and design at the graduate level. This year, 450 applicants were nominated by their universities to compete for six awards worth $150,000 each, which are given to each award winner over a three-year period. Each candidate must be an assistant professor and submit a research proposal. The criteria for a winning proposal are simple—if by simple you mean singular. “We’re really looking for projects that have the potential to change the world,” Oyler says.
Enter this year’s six Scholars Award winners, who share how they plan to revolutionize health and well-being.
Katia Vega, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of design, University of California, Davis
What she's working on ... Vega mixes elements from programming, design, chemistry and electronics to create wearable devices—from fake eyelashes that can turn on the lights with the blink of an eye to synthetic hair that can call the police and share your location with a single touch.
Take those eyelashes. They were originally designed for an artist to turn the lights and music on during a theater performance—and then Vega realized they’d also be helpful for a quadriplegic colleague so he could turn on the TV and change channels.
Ronke Mojoyinola Olabisi, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of biomedical engineering, Rutgers University
What she’s working on ... There’s already been research done on how using adult stem cells or insulin can help heal wounds. Olabisi has combined the two into a thin layer of hydrogel that can be placed over an injury to deliver a constant supply of stem cell growth factors and insulin in order to speed up tissue and skin growth and heal burns and chronic wounds—the type of long-term lesions that often afflict the elderly, diabetics and people who are obese.
The coolest part of her research ... “In our studies, we've seen skin healing three times faster than what’s ever been reported, and the wound healed without scarring,” Olabisi says. “I was expecting that it would go faster, but I didn't expect it would go three times as fast. So that was really, really exciting. If this experiment works in people with chronic wounds—some of whom have had an open wound for 30 years—it could potentially transform their lives.”
Grace X. Gu, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering, University of California, Berkeley
What she’s working on ... As groundbreaking as it is, 3-D printing still faces many challenges today. It can be slow; the printed parts may not be uniform, or their mechanical properties may be suboptimal; and there's a limited palette of raw materials to draw from.
By taking concepts from computer science and applying them to manufacturing, Gu is training a model for a smart 3-D printer that can perform predictive diagnostics to ensure optimal printing quality. The aim: create a machine that can correct mistakes on the fly, use a greater range of materials and produce everything from stronger prosthetics to tougher bike helmets much more reliably and quickly.
The coolest part of her research ... “The big goal is to develop materials that are inspired by nature, like seashells and bones, and discover new material combinations never before manufactured,” Gu says. "These biomaterials possess remarkable mechanical properties that are yet to be replicated by man-made counterparts. This way we can make implants, for instance, tailored to each individual with the properties necessary for structural integrity of the part—and push the frontiers of additive manufacturing.”
Rebecca Morrison, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of computer science, University of Colorado Boulder
What she’s working on ... When scientists study physical systems in the world—like the climate or electrical power grids—they look at the interactions between many different types of data. In the case of climate, that means temperature and weather, for instance, or amount of rainfall.
Morrison wants to identify flexible algorithms that can run mathematical calculations on these variables more quickly and accurately as they shift over time, and create more precise computational, physics-based and data-driven models of those changes so it's easier to address complex issues like climate.
The coolest part of her research ... “We could get reliable predictions of what we think the climate will be in 10, 20 or 100 years," Morrison says. "And if we can identify some trends or a pattern, then we could predict which interactions aren’t so important now, but might become very important in the future.”
Naama Geva-Zatorsky, Ph.D., assistant professor, Rappaport Faculty of Medicine, Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel
What she’s working on ... We know there are billions of microbes teeming in our intestines, and that the balance of good and harmful bacteria in our gut impacts when we get sick. We also know that these bacteria interact with our immune system. What we don’t know—and what Geva-Zatorsky would like to find out—is how.
“I am interested in understanding the mechanisms,” she says. “How do the microbes regulate certain immune cells, and which molecules are important for this interaction?” Once she and her team discover the answers, they may be able to develop more precise treatments for chronic conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, targeted to people’s individual gut bacteria.
The coolest part of her research ... “We’ve succeeded in developing a tool that’s able to label these bacteria with fluorescent markers so we can visualize them,” Geva-Zatorsky says. “Up until recently, they were invisible to us.” Now that she can see them in action in their natural environment, she explains, she’s one step closer to discovering the signaling process between the bacteria and immune systems.
Shengxi Huang, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of electrical engineering, The Pennsylvania State University
What she's working on ... If something’s wrong with your health, it could take a battery of tests—from blood work to MRIs—to pinpoint what’s ailing you. But Huang has invented one device that can measure the different spectra of lights scattering on different biomolecules that have the potential to cause disease, be it cancer cells or amyloid beta (the protein that forms plaques in Alzheimer’s patients).
The gadget may be able to detect some illnesses earlier and more accurately than we currently do. If the device could spot glycosylated hemoglobin, for instance, which is produced when glucose combines with glycated hemoglobin, then that would be a more accurate way to diagnose diabetes than we generally do now, by looking at glucose levels alone.
The problem is that the light scattered by these biomolecules can be weak and difficult to pick up. So one of Huang's goals is to pinpoint how to boost their signal strength so that detecting them is easier and faster. One effective method is based on a technology she has invented: utilizing two-dimensional materials, which are a few atoms thin, to boost up the light-scattering spectra.
The coolest part of her research ... “I plan to integrate the whole thing into a chip that people can put on their skin to monitor their health,” Huang says. “Considering that this platform is very simple, its cost could be very low. So that would benefit a large variety of people and the broader public.”