August 31, 2018

Two Purdue engineering professors honored for early-career achievement, innovation

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As Purdue celebrates 150 years of Giant Leaps in world-changing discovery and development, two more researchers are serving as shining examples of the university’s place as a leading intellectual center.

Tamara Kinzer-Ursem, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Janelle Wharry, assistant professor of nuclear engineering have received Early Career Development (CAREER) awards to further their research from the National Science Foundation. Kinzer-Ursem also received an NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) grant.

The awards support the development of individual research programs of distinguished scientists early in their careers. Recipients may be involved in scientific computing, biological or environmental research, basic energy sciences, fusion energy sciences, high energy or nuclear physics. Over the next five years, the award will provide Kinzer-Ursem with $550,000 and Wharry with $560,000.

Kinzer-Ursem researches biomolecular detection and dynamics of intracellular protein signaling networks.

With the funding from the CAREER award, Kinzer-Ursem plans to use a combined theoretical-experimental approach to describe key events in protein signaling complex formation that dictate neuron connectivity.

“Our goal is to use engineering techniques to describe how these proteins interact and move through space and time. In this way we hope to quantify the relative effects of key protein interactions so that therapies can be specifically tailored to address disruptions and dysfunctions that lead to complex learning and memory disorders.” says Kinzer-Ursem. In addition to her research, Kinzer-Ursem plans to create a set of STEM learning modules for K-12 students focused on biological transport. She will also create a multidisciplinary educational pathway for Purdue students to obtain careers in biomolecular detection, biotechnology and technology development by implementing new courses that combine engineering, chemistry and biology.

With the funding from the I-Corps grant, Kinzer-Ursem also will move toward commercializing a handheld disease detection device.

“Through the I-Corps customer discovery process we were able to identify that there is a large need to detect bacterial contamination in drinking water sources before people consume the water and get sick,” she said. “During the process we spoke with stakeholders at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), USAID, Gates Foundation, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and others. Recent cholera outbreaks in Haiti and Yemen were devastating but completely preventable. A multidisciplinary approach that brings together low-cost detection devices, such as our system, improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene and vaccination will allow for future crises to be avoided.”

Wharry’s research area surrounds the micromechanical behavior of materials under radiation. Strength, ductility and resistance to fracture are often talked about on a large scale but are actually governed by atomic- or microscopic-level features in the materials. Building the connection between the atomic and macro scales is exactly what Wharry and her team is studying, with an emphasis on how radiation can change those relationships.

With the funding from this award, Wharry will research intergranular fracture, which is a specific failure mode common in structural materials throughout the automotive, aerospace, petrochemical and nuclear industries. She will explore the effectiveness of irradiation to alleviate fractures between grains and reduce the impact of materials’ fracture across numerous industries.

“Steels are some of the most widely-used materials in the world, and while they are primarily made from iron, they also contain numerous other chemical elements,” Wharry said. “This project will help us understand the different ways that each of those elements can cause a steel to fracture.” In using irradiation, Wharry will be utilizing a technique developed by her graduate students over the past few years. “It is very rewarding to see the students’ work be recognized by the NSF as having the potential to enable us to make further discoveries,” she said. 

Writer: Kelsey Schnieders Lefever, 

Sources: Janelle Wharry,

Tamara Kinzer-Ursem,

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