Awards provide traction for promising research

Five University of Delaware professors have won support for promising early-phase research projects in widely diverse areas.

The new awards from the University of Delaware Research Foundation – give researchers traction in the early stages of projects that support the strategic initiatives of the University, allowing them to develop ideas and build a stronger foundation for future studies.

The money – totaling almost $250,000 this year – comes from the University of Delaware Research Foundation, with smaller matching sums from the University’s Research Office, the dean of the researcher’s college and the Provost’s Office.

Award winners and their respective departments include Joseph Feser (mechanical engineering), Jason Gleghorn (biomedical engineering), Dominique Guillot (mathematical sciences), Zhenghan Qi (linguistics and cognitive science) and Bingjun Xu (chemical and biomolecular engineering). Each researcher is teamed with a tenured faculty member who acts as a mentor and provides guidance for the work.

The projects include efforts to harvest previously wasted thermal energy, study language development in people with autism disorders, pursue new applications of established theories in data science, understand vascular tissue development and the thermal properties of certain hybrid materials.

Sixteen proposals were considered for this round of awards, according to Leigh Botner, research development director in UD’s Research Office. A call for proposals for the next round of awards will be made in late April or early May, she said. A workshop will follow in May, with proposals due in late August or early September.

The 2018 award winners include:

Joseph Feser

Innovators are developing and working with many new materials and re-engineering others to produce new capacities and functions in technology. Joseph Feser, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is studying the thermal conductivity of two-dimensional layered materials known as hybrid perovskites. He will team with Prof. Chaoying Ni in the work.

Hybrid perovskites have unique properties that make them attractive for use in photovoltaics, lasers and solar-fuel production, but their ability to conduct heat is not yet understood.

Feser will characterize these properties, establish whether they are extreme thermal insulators, explore how thermal transport is accomplished and test the hypothesis that interlayer bonding may increase thermal conductivity in next-generation materials.

Jason Gleghorn

Successful replacement of diseased organs or damaged tissue is keenly dependent on the restoration of oxygen supply to any tissue graft. Jason Gleghorn, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, investigates how the body builds and remodels its network of blood vessels during development to understand how to control these structures and enable advances in regenerative medicine.

Gleghorn, who also won UDRF support in 2015, is teamed with the Dean of Engineering, Babatunde Ogunnaike, in this work, which will uncover the rules by which blood vessel cells push, pull, communicate and organize in the body so that they can use those rules to build a tissue graft that generates a blood vessel network by itself in a dish.

The new insights gained will inform design of drug-screening platforms and tissue regeneration approaches in an extensive range of medical procedures including the treatment of diabetic ulcers and addressing ischemic damage in the heart.

Dominique Guillot

Putting data into context – taking into account the interconnected networks and systems in which that data exists – is essential to understanding and studying phenomena with accuracy. Studying the spread of disease, for example, or the way neurons fire within the brain are examples of this kind of work. Dominique Guillot, assistant professor of mathematical sciences, is teamed with Gonzalo Arce, the Charles Black Evans Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, in a study of how to improve signal analysis using graphs.

These graphs are constructed to incorporate time-honored principles of the “Fourier transform” theory, which has been used to analyze and process signals for more than a century.

In this study, the goal is to analyze signals in slow, low frequencies – such as the slow propagation of disease through a population – with a focus on “uniqueness sets,” the data sets that provide information most relevant to the question. Such tools can be used in sensor networks, where information can be recovered from a few sensors, and climate science, where graph Fourier analysis could help scientists reconstruct unobserved or missing data.

This work is part of an emerging and strategic emphasis on data science at the University.

Zhenghan Qi

Children with autism spectrum disorder often have modest to severe impairment in language – difficulties that can significantly affect their lives. A new study by Zhenghan Qi, assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science, looks at whether language difficulty in autism is related to statistical learning and how this learning element operates in the brain.

Statistical learning is the ability to recognize patterns and sequences – a skill necessary for language development.

Qi is teamed with Prof. Diane Chugani in the work. Qi will use behavioral-genetic analysis and lab-based functional MRI studies in this research, which will produce preliminary data for a future research proposal.

Bingjun Xu

Finding ways to capture and use thermal energy that now goes wasted is the focus of a study by Bingjun Xu, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Xu is teamed with Prof. Raul Lobo in work that aims to use that harvested energy to produce valuable chemicals, including hydrogen and “syngas.”

Xu already has developed a low-temperature cycle for splitting water molecules – a process that requires no corrosive or toxic chemicals. Now, Xu aims to use an innovative reactor design he has developed and the low-temperature thermochemical cycle in an effort to use one reactor to do work that now requires two. The proposed shift is meant to increase energy efficiency, reduce costs and reduce the complexity of the process – all of which have great industrial appeal.

Xu also will analyze and evaluate improvement in efficiency and profitability of the new system.

About UDRF

The University of Delaware Research Foundation (UDRF) is a private corporation, chartered in 1955, to support UD research. Early career, untenured and tenure-track faculty in the sciences and engineering are eligible for annual grants. More research funding opportunities are listed on the Research Office website.

Article by Beth Miller