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Cover of the Spring 2010 issue




Stimulus-funded research

In 2009, the American Recovery & Reinvestment (Stimulus) Act provided UW-Madison researchers 294 awards totalling nearly $120 million. Among them, more than 30 engineers received funding for their research. Here, we highlight a few projects.

Michael D. Graham

Michael D. Graham view larger image

Back in circulation:
Why certain polymers improve blood flow

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Harvey D. Spangler Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Michael Graham is using computational and theoretical tools to study whether “drag-reducing” polymer molecules enhance flow through some of the tiniest blood vessels in the human body.

Smaller than the diameter of a human hair, capillaries are embedded within the body’s organs and are important for distributing blood throughout the tissues. Drag-reducing polymers show particular promise for improving circulation in situations that involve blood loss. “One of the issues is making sure that, under situations where there’s a disease or injury, blood is still able to get to where it needs to be,” says Graham.

William L. Murphy

William L. Murphy view larger image

‘Magnet’ material to attract growth factors

Within the body, growth factors are important molecules in a wide range of cellular processes. They can promote cell survival, proliferation, and differentiation. Sequestering these growth factors on a surface enables researchers to locally modulate the processes.

With a portion of his $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Bill Murphy and grad students, including Greg Hudalla, are designing materials that act like magnets for growth factors. These “smart” materials can deliver signals that affect cell behavior. “So, it’s possible to use the material as an active platform to affect cell behavior,” he says. “You could envision designing implant surfaces that are capable of doing this, or designing custom cell culture substrates that are capable of doing this.”

Padma  Gopalan

Padma Gopalan view larger image

A scaffold for stem cells

Materials Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Padma Gopalan and Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Bill Murphy have received a three-year, $325,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a biomaterial platform for studying human mesenchymal stem cells, which are stem cells derived from adult human bone marrow. These cells can differentiate into several mature cell types, including bone, cartilage, fat and muscle cells.

Most stem cell types need to adhere to their surrounding “matrix” in order to survive, grow and form tissues, and Gopalan and Murphy are developing engineered materials to control this adhesion. This also research newscould lead to some level of control over other stem cell behaviors, such as new tissue formation.

“The long-term culture of mesenchymal stem cells on well-defined, controllable substrates may enable us to optimize stem cell growth and differentiation,” says Murphy. “In turn, these studies could lead to clinical strategies for optimal stem cell expansion and differentiation, and could have a significant impact on regenerative medicine strategies.”

How to polish a nano part

Neil A. Duffie

Neil A. Duffie view larger image

Xiaochun Li

Xiaochun Li view larger image

Frank E. Pfefferkorn

Frank E. Pfefferkorn view larger image

Polishing the parts of a micro-device isn’t as simple as, for example, polishing a shoe or sanding a piece of wood. Technicians maybe could polish a micro-part by hand — if they had a big enough magnifying glass — but it is impossible to selectively polish particular areas of the tiny components. In addition, tiny parts can’t handle as much heat as can their macro-sized counterparts, meaning that too much friction could actually melt the part.

These barriers to micro polishing, which likely will become more important as nanotechnology advances push the development of ever-smaller components, are the subject of a new partnership between a team of mechanical engineering professors and a Minnesota-based laser processing company.

The partnership has received funding from the National Science Foundation to identify an effective, laser-based micro polishing system. The NSF award, formally called a Grant Opportunity for Academic Liaison with Industry, comes with a three-year grant of almost $500,000.

Mechanical Engineering Professors Neil Duffie and Xiaochun Li and Associate Professor Frank Pfefferkorn are collaborating with William Dinauer (MSMSE ’90) and other engineers at LasX Industries Inc., a company in St. Paul, Minnesota, that provides high-performance industrial laser systems and contract laser materials processing services. The team is working to identify a laser-based system that can polish three-dimensional, metal parts measuring approximately .16 inches or less. The system could also polish select areas of those parts or the metallic molds used to fabricate plastic microcomponents, and the new system could apply to the electromechanical and medical device industries.

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