Tech academic professional is hailed by global community of academic advisers

August 10, 2017 | Atlanta, GA

Shana Kerr must feel like she won the Triple Crown in 2017 – a baby in March and an advising award from Georgia Tech in April. Following soon after was an award from NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising, naming Kerr one of 10 winners of the association’s 2017 Outstanding Advising Award – Faculty Academic Advising.

Kerr is being recognized for her exemplary academic advising, which is based on giving students direction and resources so they can themselves discover the answers to their questions. She believes in being genuine in her interactions with advisees and learning as much from students as they do from her.

“When I joined the Tech community as a member of the teaching faculty, I never imagined that academic advising would become such a fulfilling aspect of my job,” Kerr says. “I am deeply honored to be recognized at the national level for my advising and extremely proud to represent Tech!”

Kerr joined the Georgia Tech faculty in 2012 as an academic professional in the School of Biological Sciences. Her primary role is teaching classes; along the way she got involved in advising students. She realized the importance and joy of student advising, and as her awards attest, she has become a top-notch academic advisor.

“Sometimes students want easy, direct answers,” Kerr says. “But students who are always given direct answers are not getting practice in answering questions for themselves. I might respond with, ‘Have a look at this website for information on this issue. Let me know if you run into trouble.’ Over time, I have found that this approach yields more sophisticated questions from the same student.”

Georgia Tech’s well-deserved reputation for rigor can be shocking to high-achieving new freshmen, some of whom may struggle to pass a class or likely fail. As an adviser, Kerr helps them develop not only study skills, but also the virtues of perseverance in the face of constant challenge and resolution not to give up. She uses her advising meetings to inquire about how students are doing, determine whether serious intervention is needed, and direct them to other resources. “Many students see these resources as a lifeline,” she says.

“Professionalism is important,” Kerr continues. “But we are all human, and humanity involves emotions, mistakes, and ultimately just being yourself.” Being genuine can mean a spontaneous hug when a student has accomplished a big goal, or empathizing with and even being frustrated on a student’s behalf when they have unhelpful encounters elsewhere. Kerr wants students to know that she is affirming their experiences.

“I am constantly humbled and inspired by the amazing students I work with,” Kerr says. “I have learned much about what it really means to be persistent in the face of unrelenting challenges. I am grateful to work with such motivated and hard-working students and so very pleased to have stumbled – accidentally and enthusiastically – into the critical role of academic advisor.”

For More Information Contact

A. Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D.
Director of Communications
College of Sciences

Ten students make up inaugural cohort of new Ph.D. program

August 11, 2017 | Atlanta, GA

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was first published by the Ocean Science and Engineering Program on Aug. 9, 2017.

In November 2016, Georgia Tech launched the Ph.D. in Ocean Science and Engineering (OSE,, an interdisciplinary graduate program across the schools and faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Biological Sciences (BIOL) and Earth & Atmospheric Sciences (EAS). Ten students make up the inaugural cohort, which will begin its studies in the 2017 Fall semester.

The OSE program has two goals:

  • to educate the next generation of transdisciplinary ocean scientists and engineers by combining basic and applied sciences with innovative ocean technologies
  • to advance interdisciplinary research at the frontiers of the physical, biological, chemical and human dimensions of ocean systems. 

The program attracted a diverse group of applicants interested in specializing in Ocean Technology, Ocean Sustainability, Marine Living Resources, Ocean and Climate, and Coastal Ocean Systems. Following are the members of the inaugural class, who will begin their studies in the Fall 2017 semester. Their orientation will take place on Aug. 14-18, 2017.


Alexandra Muscalus (OSE-CEE)

Alexandra Muscalus obtained a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Georgia Tech in 2016. She joins OSE with Georgia Tech Presidential and Institute Fellowships. Her research interests include ocean energy and fieldwork approaches to nature-based coastal resilience and shoreline change. She aspires to advance the field of coastal engineering as a professor. In her free time, Muscalus enjoys backpacking, scuba diving, playing musical instruments, running, and cooking.


Roth Conrad (OSE-BIOL)

Roth Conrad joins OSE with a Georgia Tech Presidential Fellowship. “I spent eight years traveling, exploring, and acquiring a diverse skill set and world view,” he says. “I worked on a sailboat in the Bahamas, which deeply affected my awareness of the environment.” Conrad also built and traveled across the country in a vegetable-oil-powered school bus, which inspired his fascination with microbiology and biological degradation. “Both experiences showed me how rewarding sharing ideas with people can be,” he says.

“My mind full of questions, appreciation for the environment, curiosity about microbes, and desire to share ideas are a few reasons why I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Ocean Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech.”


Abigail Johnson (OSE-EAS)

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology from Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, and a master’s degree in biological and environmental sciences from the University of Rhode Island, Abigail Johnson looks forward to continuing her education in the OSE program. With this Ph.D.,  she says, 

“I hope to advance our tools in search for and our knowledge of Earth’s deep ocean life.”

Specifically, she plans to use a novel high-pressure chamber to characterize microbial communities in methane hydrates from the Gulf of Mexico incubated under in situ pressures. Upon receiving a Ph.D., she plans to continue her career in academia, with the goals of “researching the mysteries of our deep ocean and educating our future generations.”


Benjamin Hurwitz (OSE-CEE)

Benjamin Hurwitz is an electrical engineer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School with a focus in chemistry before attending Colby College, in Maine, from where he graduated with a B.A. in Applied Mathematics. A long-time scuba diver, he spent a year in the Virgin Islands, teaching and guiding divers around the reefs. He returned to school at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he spent three years earning a B.S. in Electrical Engineering with a focus on microelectronics.

His interests include marine robotic electrical systems, instrumentation design, and integrated circuit fabrication.

When he’s not working, he can be found on the ice rink, in the climbing gym, or on the ocean.


Gian Giacomo Navarra (OSE-EAS)

Since high school Gian Giacomo Navarra was interested in astronomy and mathematics. He pursued a bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics at the University of Bologna, Italy. After an undergraduate research experience in the University of Bristol, he got interested and completed a master’s degree in condensed matter and statistical mechanics in 2016. After completing his thesis in computational mechanics, Navarra says,

“I realized that the methods I learned and developed in statistical mechanics have the potential to advance the geosciences, in particular ocean and climate dynamics (for example, El Niño), which have a high degree of stochastic physics.”


Melissa Ruszczyk (OSE-BIOL)

Melissa Ruszczyk began her undergraduate education in 2013 at Allegheny College, in Meadville, Pa., where she did research in limnology, microbiology, and disease ecology.

She also fostered her passion for music, gave two public clarinet recitals during her four years at Allegheny, and was featured soloist and concert master of the wind symphony during her senior year.

Upon completion of her comprehensive senior research project, Serial Sonification of Chaoborus Behavior in Response to Daphnia Size: Intricacies of the Predator-Prey Relationship, Ruszczyk graduated magna cum laude with bachelor degrees in biology and music.


Youngjun Son (OSE-CEE)

Youngjun Son graduated with master degrees in industrial engineering and in naval architecture at Seoul National University in 2012. From 2011 to 2017, he researched hydrodynamics and mooring technologies at Hyundai Heavy Industries, in  Ulsan, Korea. His research experience includes environmental loads, potential theory, nonlinear damping, damping linearization, spectral analysis, extreme statistics, design waves, load combination factors, mooring, risers, dynamic positioning, and wave basin model tests. In the OSE program, he will study hydrodynamics and ocean mechanics... develop new devices for ocean applications such as renewable energy converters.

He is motivated by the need to integrate diverse and complex knowledge beyond one particular discipline in order to develop new marine resources.


Minda Monteagudo (OSE-EAS)

Minda Monteagudo completed her B.A. in Earth Science at the University of Southern California and M.S. in Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She joins the OSE program as a second-year Ph.D. student, specializing in paleoclimate and working on...

...reconstructing past sea surface temperature changes over the last glacial cycle from sediment cores in the Central Equatorial Pacific, for which very few records exist.

Previously, she worked on refining Mg/Ca paleothermometry, one of the most widely applied proxies for reconstructing past surface sea temperatures.


Xiyuan Zeng (OSE-EAS)

Xiyuan Zeng completed a Bachelor of Engineering in Marine Resources Development Technology in 2017 at Shandong University, China. For his bachelor’s thesis, he studied the characteristics of the peripheral flow field of circular cylinders. As an undergraduate, he also conducted research in remote sensing to estimate the seasonal variation of marine phytoplankton in the South China Sea. He also participated in several student training programs to study marine bacillus species and the New Zealand hybrid abalone.

He would like to use computational fluid mechanics to study ocean circulation and biophysical interactions in the marine environment.

Tyler Vollmer (OSE-EAS)

From Riverside, Calif., Tyler Vollmer graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a double major in geophysics and mathematics/atmospheric and oceanic sciences at age 19, and began research in paleoclimatology. After being awarded a Georgia Tech Presidential Fellowship, he joined the OSE program. His research uses geochemical proxies, such as 13C, and 18O isotopes, and climate modeling to reconstruct past climatic conditions, such as temperature, ocean circulation, and atmospheric circulation. The results would add context to recent climate change.

In his spare time, Vollmer is a competitive figure skater (started at age 3). He was the Intermediate Men National Champion in 2013.

He hopes to continue in academia, with the goal of becoming a professor.


A Message of Appreciation

OSE program Directors Emanuele Di Lorenzo and Annalisa Bracco, professors in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, extend sincere thanks to Susan Cozzens, Georgia Tech’s vice provost for graduate education; Paul Goldbart, dean of the College of Sciences; Gary May, former dean of the College of Engineering and now the chancellor of the University of California, Davis; and the Georgia Tech leadership team for their support and encouragement in establishing the OSE program.

Di Lorenzo and Bracco also extend special thanks to the OSE Faculty who have worked very hard in recruiting this first class of OSE students.


For More Information Contact

A. Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D.
Director of Communications
College of Sciences

The College of Sciences professor and associate dean chairs the search committee

March 13, 2017 | Atlanta

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: This story was first published in the Georgia Tech News Center on March 10, 2017.

Following Dean Gary May’s confirmation as the next chancellor at the University of California Davis, Provost Rafael L. Bras has named a search committee to launch a national and international search for a new dean of the College of Engineering.

The 15-member search advisory committee is comprised of faculty and staff, as well as the current undergraduate and graduate student body presidents. The committee will be chaired by Julia Kubanek, associate dean for Research, College of Sciences; professor of Biological Sciences; and professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Jennifer Herazy, associate provost for Operations, will serve as search director.

The new dean of the college must continue and accelerate the College’s pursuit of scholarship and excellence,” said Bras. “The critical work of the search committee will include identification and vetting of candidates that can bring the energy and intellectual leadership that will be required for that accelerated effort. I appreciate the committee’s dedication to the process as we identify the College’s next leader.”

An External Advisors Group is being formed to help guide the search process. More information about this group will be posted when available.

Two town halls will be scheduled in April for faculty, staff, and students to provide feedback on the candidate search.

Applications and nominations will be received until the dean is selected, but interested parties are encouraged to submit their application materials by April 30, 2017, to ensure optimal consideration.

Members of the search committee include:

  • Julia Kubanek (Chair), Associate Dean for Research, College of Sciences; Professor of Biological Sciences; and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • Jennifer Herazy (Search Director), Associate Provost for Operations
  • Adjo Amekudzi-Kennedy, Associate Chair, Global Engineering Leadership & Research Development; Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Samuel Graham, Associate Chair for Research; Rae S. and Frank H. Neely Professor; Professor of Mechanical Engineering
  • Beki Grinter, Professor of Interactive Computing, College of Computing
  • Emily Howell, Director of Finance and Administration, College of Engineering
  • Ravi Kane, Garry Betty/V Foundation Chair and GRA Eminent Scholar in Cancer Nanotechnology; Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
  • Pinar Keskinocak, William W. George Chair and Professor, Industrial & Systems Engineering; ADVANCE Professor, College of Engineering; Co-Director, Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems
  • Nagela Nukuna, Undergraduate Student Body President; Industrial Engineering Student
  • Julian Rimoli, Goizueta Junior Professor, Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering
  • Justin Romberg, Associate Chair for Research; Schlumberger Professor; Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • David Scripka, Graduate Student Body President; Materials Science and Engineering Student
  • Meisha Shofner, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering
  • Phil Spessard, Associate Vice President for Development     
  • Garrett Stanley, Carol Ann and David D. Flanagan Professor, Professor of Biomedical Engineering
  • Brandi Foley-Rodgers (ex officio), Director, Human Resources, Office of the Provost
  • Mary Thomas (search support), Program Manager, Office of the Provost

A full position description, search committee roster, and ongoing search updates can be found at

For More Information Contact

Julia Kubanek
Chair, Search Committee

Twelve days of fun, discovery, learning, and excitement

February 28, 2017 | Atlanta

The 2017 Atlanta Science Festival takes place on March 14-25 throughout the Metro Atlanta area. In its fourth year, the festival shines a light on the science and technology community in our region, showcasing local discoveries, innovation, and learning opportunities. At dozens of engaging events, the festival features the businesses, universities, and cultural institutions that make Atlanta a science metropolis.

To officially kick-off the Atlanta Science Festival, highly decorated American astronaut Captain Mark Kelly will make a special appearance at 7:00 PM on Tuesday, March 14, at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University.

The festival culminates on Saturday, March 25, at Centennial Olympic Park with a free, family friendly Exploration Expo from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The Exploration Expo promotes science exploration, discovery and innovation through more than 100 interactive exhibits, hands-on experiments, mind blowing demos and performances.

Inspired by scientists, the Atlanta Science Festival was founded by Emory University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

The following events feature participation of Georgia Institute of Technology:

STEAM Leadership Institute

Thursday, March 16, 2017, 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM

Georgia Tech Research Institute, 400 10th St, NW Atlanta GA 30318

ADMISSION: $125/person; $100/person for groups of 3+ (Get tickets in advance or at the door.)

Reserve Tickets Here

Are you wanting to help your school become more STEAM focused, but not sure how? Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing (CEISMC) invites you to the 2017 STEAM Leadership Institute. This event will feature interactive, educational sessions, engaging STEAM-focused work groups, and panel sessions with experts in the field. This event is designed for leaders and administrators at K-12 schools. Discounts are available for groups of 3 or more. Admission includes continental breakfast and lunch. Register here. Free parking is available in the garage.

Science Happy Hour

Thursday, March 16, 2017, 5:30-7:30 PM

SweetWater Brewing Company,195 Ottley Dr NE Atlanta GA 30324

ADMISSION: $20 (Get tickets in advance or at the door.)

Reserve Tickets Here

Have you ever wondered how so much delicious flavor finds its way into a bottle of beer? Join the Georgia Tech School of Physics and SweetWater Brewing Company for happy hour with scientists and brewmasters as we investigate the role of specific gravity in the fermentation process. Explore interactive home brewing demonstrations and take a guided tour of the SweetWater brewery. Attendees will enjoy all of their favorite SweetWater beverages in a keepsake Atlanta Science Festival Science beaker/pint glass. Space is limited so reserve your tickets online now!

Story Collider

Thursday, March 16, 2017, 7:30-9:00 PM

Highland Inn Ballroom, 644 North Highland Avenue NE Atlanta GA 30306

ADMISSION: $10 (Get tickets in advance or at the door)

Reserve Tickets Here

The Story Collider brings true, personal stories about science to life. At this live show, you’ll hear from scientists about all the times things went wrong, and occasionally right, in their labs, and you’ll also hear from people who haven’t had a formal connection to science in years. We have physicists, comedians, neuroscientists, writers, actors, and many others telling their story. Some are heartbreaking; some are hilarious. They’re all true, and all, in one way or another, are about science. Read more about the storytellers for this show here and get your tickets in advance here.  

5th Annual Latino College and STEM Fair

Saturday, March 18, 2017, 9:00 AM to 2:30 PM

Georgia Tech Student Center, 350 Ferst Drive NW Atlanta GA 30332


Join us for bilingual workshops, fun hands-on activities for the entire family, a college fair, a majors fair, as well as an inspirational panel with Latino college students, parents, professors, and other professionals. This will be a free, fun, educational, and inspiring event organized by Georgia Tech GoSTEM and the University of Georgia LISELL-B programs. You don’t want to miss it!

What's All the Buzz About Nanotechnology?

Saturday, March 18, 2017 10:00 AM to 12:30 PM

Marcus Nanotechnology Building, 345 Ferst Dr. Atlanta GA 30313


How do scientists and engineers interact with a world too small to see? Learn how at Georgia Tech’s Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology. Explore how micro- and nanoscale objects can be seen with powerful microscopes. Learn hands-on about unique properties at the nanoscale. Bring a sample (must be dry and smaller than an inch) to scan with our tabletop scanning electron microscope, and take home a digital copy of what we see. Parking is available in the visitor lot across the street and open in the faculty/staff lot.

Nerdy Derby

Saturday, March 18, 2017, 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM

Hollis Innovation Academy, 225 Griffin St NW Atlanta GA 30314


Build your own innovative car and bring it to Nerdy Derby for some fun, crazy racing. Or come and get help from folks from Georgia Tech and Decatur Makers to create your own personalized vehicle to speed down the 30+ foot track. The Nerdy Derby is a twist on the Pinewood Derby, but where all rules are thrown out and the focus is on rewarding creativity, cleverness, and ingenuity. Competition categories include slowest, fastest, funniest epic fail, cutest, and many others. Cars can be made from metal, wood, plastic, Legos, cardboard, cheese, or whatever you can dream up. Just make sure the wheels are 1¾” apart and the car isn’t more than 8” high or 5” wide.

Science of Cannabis

Saturday, March 18, 2017, 7:30-9:00 PM

Manuel’s Tavern, 602 North Highland Ave NE Atlanta GA 30307

ADMISSION: Free (RSVP preferred)

Join us for an evening of getting into the weeds...of weed. Science comedian and Georgia Tech chemical engineering professor Pete Ludovice will share with us his research on the science of cannabis biochemistry and production, and his recent work consulting on a TV show on cooking with cannabis. Get more info here.

Circus Science

Sunday, March 19, 2017, 2:30-4:00 PM

Buck’s Sports Barn, 2303B Peachtree Rd Atlanta GA 30309

ADMISSION: $12 presale, $15 at the door

Reserve Tickets Here

Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Step right up and be a part of Circus Science! Immerse yourself in the circus arts while learning basic scientific principles that make these amazing feats of strength and balance possible. We will incorporate traditional circus disciplines, demonstrated by skilled Imperial Opa Circus acrobats, and scientific principles, explained by Georgia Tech “Science Clowns.” to entertain and educate you. You will even have the opportunity to participate in learning several circus skills in order to experience the science within first hand! Get your tickets here.
Note: There is a second session of Circus Science at 5pm.

Please note that this event listing reflects the updated time for the event (different from the booklet listing).

Circus Science

Sunday, March 19, 2017, 5:00-6:30 PM

Buck's Sports Barn, 2303B Peachtree Rd Atlanta GA 30309

Reserve Tickets Here

ADMISSION: $12 presale, $15 at the door

Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Step right up and be a part of Circus Science! Immerse yourself in the circus arts while learning basic scientific principles that make these amazing feats of strength and balance possible. We will incorporate traditional circus disciplines, demonstrated by skilled Imperial Opa Circus acrobats, and scientific principles, explained by Georgia Tech “Science Clowns,” to entertain and educate you. You will even have the opportunity to participate in learning several circus skills in order to experience the science within first hand! Get your tickets here.
Note: There is an earlier session of this event at 2:30pm.
Please note that this event listing reflects the updated time for the event (different from the booklet listing).

Science Rock and Comedy

Sunday, March 19, 2017, 7:00-9:30 PM

Smith’s Olde Bar, 578 Piedmont Ave NE Atlanta GA 30324


Earth’s first genetically modified rock band, Leucine Zipper and the Zinc Fingers, emerges from their labs at Georgia Tech and Zoo Atlanta to laugh it up with members of the Geekapalooza comedy tour in this night of science-themed music and comedy. Learn more and connect with us through our Facebook event.

Science Improv

Wednesday, March 22, 2017, 7:30-9:30 PM

Whole World Improv, 1216 Spring Street Atlanta GA 30309

ADMISSION: $10 ($5 for students)

Reserve Tickets Here

Improv comedy with a science twist! Georgia Tech scientists, improvisation artists, and the audience combine to show the lighter side of science and life in the lab through short improv games and sketches. Get your tickets now!

Introducing the Next...

Friday, March 24, 2017, 7:00-10:00 PM

Ferst Center for the Arts, 349 Ferst Drive Atlanta GA 30332

ADMISSION: $28 ($22 with discount code)

Join us for an evening of arts, choreography, and innovation. Atlanta’s Dance Canvas and Arts @Tech come together to explore the bridges between movement, technology, science, and life. With a focus on humanity, culture, and how dance can innovate, this performance highlights the creativity of emerging new voices in dance. The performance begins at 8:00 PM, but come at 7:00 PM for a special ASF talk-back with choreographers Adam McKinney and Emily Cargill to discuss collaborations between arts & tech. For tickets, call the Ferst Center Box Office at 404-894-9600. Use the code SCIENCE to save 25% on tickets.

Georgia Tech's Hungry Hungry Robots

Saturday, March 25, 2017, 11:00 AM to 4 PM

Centennial Olympic Park, 265 Park Ave W NW Atlanta GA 30313


Come to Makers Meet to compete in Georgia Tech’s Hungry Hungry Robots! Race against the clock to collect more balls than your competitor using remote controlled robots! Innovation and Ingenuity will lead you to victory in this interactive, hands-on event!

Exploration Expo

Saturday, March 25, 2017, 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM

Centennial Olympic Park, 265 Park Ave W NW Atlanta GA 30313


Atlanta’s biggest interactive science event is FREE and open to adults, families, and children of all ages and interests. The Exploration Expo promotes science exploration, discovery, and innovation with more than 100 interactive exhibits, hands-on experiments, mind-blowing demos, and performances! Learn more here.

For More Information Contact

A. Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D.
Director of Communications
College of Sciences

March 2, 2017 | Atlanta, GA

Though tailpipe emissions could fall in the years ahead as more zero-emission vehicles hit the streets, one major source of highway air pollution shows no signs of abating: brake and tire dust.

Metals from brakes and other automotive systems are emitted into the air as fine particles, lingering over busy roadways. Now, researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have shown how that cloud of tiny metal particles could wreak havoc on respiratory health.

In a study published January 31 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the researchers described how vehicle-emitted metals such as copper, iron and manganese interact with acidic sulfate-rich particles already in the air to produce a toxic aerosol.

“There’s a chain reaction happening in the air above busy highways,” said Rodney Weber, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences. “Acidic sulfate in the atmosphere comes into contact with those metals emitted from traffic and changes their solubility, making them more likely to cause oxidative stress when inhaled.”

The study, which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, showed how the metals are emitted mainly in an insoluble form but slowly become soluble after mixing with sulfate.

“Sulfate has long been associated with adverse health impacts,” said Athanasios Nenes, a professor and Georgia Power Scholar in the School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. “The old hypothesis was that the acidic sulfate burns your lung lining, which in turn leads the bad health effects. But there is not enough acid in the air alone to really have that impact.”

But sulfate plays a key role in making metals soluble before they are inhaled, which could explain the association of sulfate with adverse health impacts, the researchers said.

The researchers collected samples of ambient particulate matter in two locations in Atlanta – one near a major interstate highway and another urban site 420 meters away from the roadway. They analyzed the chemical content, size distribution and acidity of the samples.

A significant amount of the ambient sulfate found was similar in size to the metal particles, suggesting that the ambient sulfate and metals were mixed within individual particles, which over hours or days would allow the acidic sulfate to convert the metal into a soluble form.

To quantify just how dangerous the aerosol could be, the researchers developed a high throughput analytical system for a chemical assay – called oxidative potential – that simulates the toxic response that such a mix would have on cellular organisms. This instrument was used to generate large data sets on ambient aerosol oxidative potential, which when utilized in an earlier epidemiological study, researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory University found that the chemical assay was statistically associated with hospital admissions in Atlanta for asthma and wheezing.

In the new study, the researchers observed that the peak toxicity indicated by the assay was closely correlated to those particles that contained the largest amount of soluble metals, which occurred only when metallic particles mixed with highly acidic sulfate.

“That’s the smoking gun,” Nenes said. “The sulfate essentially dissolves those metals; when you breathe in those particles, the metals could be absorbed directly into the blood stream and cause problems throughout the body. For the first time, a mechanism emerges to explain why small amounts of acidic sulfate can adversely affect health.”

While the sample taken from the testing site located farther away from the highway had less particulate metal, there was still enough to cause an increase in the oxidative potential, showing that roadway pollution could travel through the air and potentially cause problems in surrounding areas as well.

Dust from brakes and tires isn’t the only source of metals in the air. Incinerators and other forms of combustion also produce mineral dust and metallic particles, which could mix with sulfate to trigger a similar reaction.

The researchers noted that while the amount of particulate sulfate in the southeastern United States has decreased during the past 15 years as sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants have fallen, there’s still enough acidic sulfate in the air to keep the pH of particles very low, in the range of 0 to 2, transforming insoluble ambient metals to a soluble form.

“Vehicle tailpipe emissions are going down, but these kinds of emissions from braking will remain to some extent, even if you drive an electric car,” Weber said. “Therefore, this kind of process will continue to play out in the future and will be an important consideration when we look at the health effects of particulate matter.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1360730 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Grant No. RD834799. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

CITATION: Ting Fang, Hongyu Guo, Linghan Zeng, Vishal Verma, Athanasios Nenes and Rodney J. Weber, “Highly acidic ambient particles, soluble metals and oxidative potential: A link between sulfate and aerosol toxicity,” (Environmental Science & Technology, 2017).

For More Information Contact

Josh Brown
Research News
(404) 385-0500

March 1, 2017 | Atlanta, GA

Researchers have successfully identified biological signatures in pediatric patients with newly diagnosed Crohn’s disease (CD) capable of predicting whether a child will develop disease-related complications requiring major surgery within three to five years. The results of this research, “Prediction of complicated disease course for children newly diagnosed with Crohn’s disease: a multicentre inception cohort study,” have been published in the journal, The Lancet. 

This groundbreaking work is the result of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s “RISK Stratification” study, the largest new-onset study completed on pediatric Crohn’s disease patients. It is a multicenter research initiative that consists of 25 U.S. institutions and three from Canada and a cohort of 1,112 CD children enrolled at diagnosis, of which 913 were included in the published study. Of the 28 research sites, four are located in Atlanta - Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and the Children’s Center for Digestive Health Care. The goal of this research was to identify measurable indicators of the two most common complications in pediatric Crohn’s disease that require surgery - stricturing and penetrating disease. 

Stricturing, also referred to as fibrostenosis, is characterized by a build-up of fibrotic scar tissue which leads to thickening of the intestinal wall and narrowing of the intestinal passage. Penetrating disease is the result of sustained inflammation that spreads beyond the intestinal wall resulting in the creation of fistulas, abnormal connections between the intestine and other organs. Penetrating complications can also lead to the formation of abscesses at the sites of fistulas. 

“Twenty five percent of patients with Crohn’s disease account for 80 percent of complications, hospitalizations, surgery and health care costs. The aim of RISK is to preemptively identify those 25 percent of patients at diagnosis,” Subra Kugathasan, M.D., Emory University, principal investigator and lead author of the paper. “Through the study of baseline gene expression, immune reactivity, and intestinal bacteria, we have identified distinct biological signatures capable of predicting stricturing and penetrating disease, at diagnosis. After analyzing millions of biological and clinical data points, RISK has generated a composite risk stratification model.” 

"Stricturing and penetrating disease account for substantial morbidity in both pediatric and adult patients with Crohn’s disease, but there are no validated models to predict risk and the effect of treatment," said Caren Heller, M.D., chief scientific officer of the Foundation. 

RISK study researchers looked at intestinal gene expression levels to identify risk factor genes whose levels are altered (increased or decreased) at enrollment, and identified distinct biological gene expression signatures at baseline that could distinguish children who will develop strictures form those who develop fistulas or abscesses, without the confounding effects of treatment on gene expression. Therefore, these genetic signatures together with other biological and clinical variables they evaluated could be used as predictors of complications and treatment outcomes at diagnosis. 

"Importantly, the functional nature of these genetic signatures is consistent with the clinical presentation of the complications," said Ted Denson, M.D., Cincinnati Children's Hospital, co-principal investigator and lead author of the paper. "This means that while patients who develop fibrostenosis exhibit, at diagnosis, increased levels of several genes involved in the fibrosis process, patients who develop penetrating disease have increased levels of genes involved in the inflammatory response."

In addition to providing predictive biological signatures for development of complications, the RISK study also found that patients who receive early anti-TNFa biologic treatment, within three months of diagnosis, were less likely to develop penetrating complications. However, patients with stricturing complications were poorly responsive to early intervention with biologics. These data support the utility of risk stratification of pediatric Crohn’s disease patients at diagnosis, and may guide early tailored use of anti-TNFa therapy. The data also highlight the unmet medical need to find new treatment options for children likely to develop strictures. 

“These discoveries are great steps toward precision medicine in the treatment of pediatric Crohn's disease,” said Andrés Hurtado-Lorenzo, Ph.D., Director of Translational Research of the Foundation. “In the coming years, we plan to translate these findings into a risk diagnostic tool that could use these biological signatures as biomarkers to predict risk of complications and to help clinicians make therapeutic decisions at diagnosis.”

The Foundation has made significant investments in support of pediatric IBD research through the PRO-KIIDS network, an umbrella for clinics participating in pediatric IBD research. Although many projects are expected to arise from this network the Risk Stratification has been the flagship study.  

“Pediatric patients are the fastest growing group of the IBD population. Under the auspices of the PRO-KIIDS network, every major pediatric IBD center in the country is touched by our work or funding,” said Michael Osso, President and CEO of the Foundation. “Through the network, and the results of the RISK study, we are furthering research that will significantly lower the treatment burden on kids, and help minimize side effects on the quality of life surrounding the most vulnerable of patients.”

As part of the study, Georgia Tech postdoctoral researcher Urko Marigorta analyzed RNAseq gene expression data from biopsies provided by Cincinnati Children's Hospital. The work identified dozens of pathways that are differentially expressed in complicated disease, and showed that immune activity is more disrupted in penetrating disease while extracellular matrix is more involved in stricturing disease. Inclusion of these profiles in a statistical model with the serological and classical markers improved the predictive accuracy of the model significantly.  

“We performed statistical and bioinformatic analyses of the genomic data which led to enhanced discrimination of which patients are likely to progress to complicated disease,” said Greg Gibson, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Biological Sciences and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The involvement of TNF-alpha signaling in progression to stricturing disease is consistent with the overall finding that these are the patients who respond to TNF-alpha therapy.”

This seminal work and its discovery represent over $10 million investment by the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, nearly 10 years of work, and collaborative team effort. Dr. Thomas Walters from the Hospital for Sick Kids, Canada shares lead authorship with Drs. Kugathasan and Denson. In addition, Dr. Jeffrey Hyams (Connecticut Children’s Medical Center), and Dr. Marla Dubinsky (Mount Sinai Hospital, New York) share authorship. 

About the RISK Stratification Study
The RISK Stratification Study enrolled 1,800 patients from 28 clinics, with a focus on 913 children with Crohn’s disease enrolled at diagnosis and complication-free following 90 days after diagnosis. This 36-month prospective inception cohort study included well documented clinical, demographic, and biological sample collection every six months on all patients for three years with continuing follow up for five years. 

About the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation 
The Crohn's & Colitis Foundation is the largest non-profit, voluntary, health organization dedicated to finding cures for inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). The Foundation’s mission is to cure Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, and to improve the quality of life of children and adults who suffer from these diseases. The Foundation works to fulfill its mission by funding research; providing educational resources for patients and their families, medical professionals, and the public; and furnishing supportive services for those afflicted with IBD. For more information visit 

- Written by Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation

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The recently named Regents Professor combines imagination, courage, and optimism in his approach to origins-of-life research.

February 28, 2017 | Atlanta

Nicholas V. Hud imagines that life evolved from molecules that were the result of chemical reactions that took place at millions of locations, scattered across the landscape of early Earth, each location producing a type of molecule that could grow as chemistry permitted. As the molecules grew, they ‘crept’ across the land in puddles and rivulets, mixing with other sets of molecules. The molecular aggregates became more complex mixtures until, after eons of mingling, the transition from chemistry to biology occurred.

The television show “Star Trek: The Next Generation” has alluded to this scenario. In the series finale, the omnipotent antagonist Q takes the hero, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, back in time to early Earth: a barren wasteland except for small pools of water stretching across the surface. As Picard examines a pool, Q mockingly tells him, “This is you. Right here, life is about to form on this planet for the very first time. Strange, isn’t it? Everything you know, your entire civilization, it all begins right here in this little pond of goo.”

“I thought the whole setting looked as I would imagine it,” says Hud, a professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

In Hud, such imagination is coupled with ingenuity and creativity in breaking down large research objectives into smaller ones and attacking those one by one. This—plus a fearlessness in pushing new ideas and a cheery optimism—makes Hud an outstanding professor and scientist. For his achievements so far, the University System of Georgia (USG) last year named Hud a Regents Professor. This honor is the highest bestowed by USG for distinction and achievement in teaching and scholarly research.

Understanding how chemistry begat biology is one of the grand challenges of science. It is the focus of Hud’s research and of the Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE), which Hud directs. The CCE has positioned Georgia Tech as one of the leading institutions in origins-of-life research.

Hud was a graduate student when origins-of-life research was undergoing a renaissance in the early 1990s. “It made me wonder: where did these molecules come from?” says Hud, referring to the biological polymers—RNA, DNA, and proteins—that are central to all the chemistry of life. How did the transition from single molecules to biological polymers occur?

“I had a feeling that it might be possible to address some parts of this problem,” Hud says. “We’ve made good progress within CCE, but we need to do more.”


Origins-of-life research is vast in scope. Hud and CCE are focused on the origins of biopolymers. The origins of nucleic acids, which are DNA and RNA in current life, is a particularly challenging question. It starts with what has been named the “nucleoside problem.”

Unlike amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—which can be produced in relatively simple chemical reactions, nucleosides--the building blocks of nucleic acids—are trickier to make. Each nucleoside has a “base,” which is the pairing part of the molecule, and a sugar, which is ribose in RNA and deoxyribose in DNA. Although ribose and the bases of RNA can be made in model prebiotic reactions, Hud says, it has proven virtually impossible to connect the bases to ribose by reactions that would have likely happened on early Earth.

Instead of using the bases found in modern nucleic acids to figure out how nucleosides may have formed from primordial pools, Hud is looking for different bases that connect easily with a sugar to form a nucleoside.

“If you change just one or two atoms from the molecules that we have in life today, it may be possible to come up with molecules that will easily form RNA-like polymers,” Hud says. “That’s our overarching hypothesis: that life started with slightly different molecules and developed more sophisticated chemistry over time.”

Whether the question of how chemistry gave rise to biology will ever be fully answered, Hud says that CCE research will not only further our understanding of life’s origins, but also reap benefits in other ways. “We are finding reactions for the synthesis of molecules and polymers in water that rival the best of those designed by synthetic chemists,” Hud says. “If we are successful, these molecules and polymers could facilitate the production of useful materials and therapeutics, for example.”


Research on the nucleoside problem has led Hud to revitalize an old origins-of-life theory, one that counters the “RNA world” idea, which caught fire when Hud was a graduate student. Questioning RNA as the end-all be-all molecule of life, Hud prefers the idea of a series of pools and hotbeds of chemical activity spread over a wide area, all involved in different chemical reactions. In time, the separate pools engage in cross-talk, cooperating and evolving synchronously, until enough components coalesce into membrane-bound cells.

“I think early on there were many different molecules simultaneously making the transition from small molecules to polymers,” Hud says. He thinks of the system as “a giant, distributed organism where the chemistry that we have in cells today was operating over the surface of the land.” As chemistries were evolving in different parts of this “megaorganism,” the pools of chemical activities were sharing solutions to certain problems in the chemistry of what needed to be done to initiate life, Hud explains.

“I like this model of early life where in one place a solution arises that is able to catalyze a reaction that’s needed a kilometer away,” Hud explains. “Some people think this is a wacky idea,” Hud adds with a chuckle. But, he emphasizes, “the theory fits the current data well.”


“Thinking about the wonder and the power of chemistry to give rise to molecules as complex as what we have inside of us is exciting,” Hud says. The drive that moves him toward uncovering the mysteries of the eons also makes him optimistic. Unraveling the steps from chemistry to biology has become a consuming passion that permeates his speech and manner with cheerful positivity.

“Within a few years, we may be able to understand the chemistry that gives rise to life,” Hud says. “In doing that, chemists could use what we learn to make new materials, medicines, and therapeutics. As we understand more about the nature of the universe, I am hopeful that all of us will have a greater appreciation for the special role Earth played in the origins of life, which could result in us making better choices for the world and for society.”

Nathanael Levinson
Contributing Writer
College of Sciences

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A. Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D.
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GTNeuro researchers on the cutting edge are exploring the frontier between our ears

February 27, 2017 | Atlanta, GA

Imagine trying to eavesdrop on the human brain, with its complex, chattering galaxy of 86 billion neurons, each one connected to thousands of other neurons, holding cellular conversations through more than 100 trillion synaptic connections.

It is a dense and noisy communication network, wrapped and hidden deep within precious tissue. We’ve pondered over, poked, and prodded the brain for centuries. But so much of what goes on inside our skulls is a mystery and neuro-research is still closer to the starting line than the finish.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, scientists and engineers from different backgrounds have formed an interdisciplinary research community called ‘GTNeuro.’ They’re out to improve our understanding of the brain and the entire nervous system, and they’re seeking and creating the means to treat neurological diseases and injuries, even boost neural function, bringing the mysteries of the human brain into clearer focus.

“There’s a large and growing community here, of people focused on basic science, translation, and technology related to a range of neurological diseases and disorders, and all of this is bolstered by a vibrant educational and training environment,” says Garrett Stanley, a researcher in the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience and professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME, a joint department of Emory and Georgia Tech).


Busy Intersection

Currently, there are more than 60 faculty researchers from Georgia Tech and Emory under the GTNeuro umbrella, and they come from the schools of Biological Sciences, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE), Psychology, and Physics at Georgia Tech, in addition to BME and multiple departments and divisions at Emory.

“The activities at Georgia Tech represent an intersection of basic neuroscience, and engineering-driven neuro-technology, a synergy which is necessary to drive the field forward,” says Stanley, who co-chairs the faculty steering committee for GTNeuro (with Petit Institute researcher Todd Streelman, professor and chair in the School of Biological Sciences).

“GTNeuro is just a very organic, faculty-driven kind of thing,” says Stanley, who also co-chairs the Neural Engineering Center (one of the research centers based at the Petit Institute, which also houses the Neuro Design Suite, a core lab facility) with Lena Ting, a professor who joined the Coulter Department 15 years ago.

“We were a small but tightly integrated group in the Laboratory for Neuroengineering, which occupied the third floor of the Whikater Building,” says Ting.

The small neuro-community of six neuro-researchers (two ECE faculty members, and four from BME) included, in addition to Ting, current Petit Institute researchers Rob Butera and Michelle LaPlaca.

“We pooled resources and had an internal seminar series, shared a lab manager. It was a very tight knit community,” says Ting. “Back then, we were about the only neuroscience research on the Georgia Tech campus. Slowly, over the last 12 years or so, that has changed dramatically.”

The burgeoning interest in neuro-research (across disciplines and department boundaries) was exemplified recently in the 25th edition of the Suddath Symposium at the Petit Institute (Feb. 21-22). The focus was neuroscience. Thought leaders from across the country and overseas spent two days discussing their research at the symposium, where the theme was “Neuromodulation and Synaptic Control: Modern Tools and Applications.”


Accelerating Progress

Every Monday in the Engineered Biosystems Building (EBB), a packed room takes in the GTNeuro Seminar Series, in which a wide range of experts – from Georgia Tech, Emory, and beyond – present cutting edge research.

These popular seminars, which start at 11 a.m. in EBB Room 1005, are video-conferenced to Emory, and recorded (and made available through the Georgia Tech Library).

Recent speakers have come from Case Western, Princeton, Harvard, in addition to brain experts from right here. Most recently, Audrey Duarte from Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology presented a talk entitled, “What can neuroimaging tell us about age-related memory changes?” In two weeks, Mark Frye from UCLA will discuss how flies see the world. And later in March, Machelle Pardue of the Coulter Department will talk about how to improve detection and treatment of diabetic retinopathy.

“We’re attracting 80, 100 people on a weekly basis,” says Ting, who is based at Emory, where she now heads up the Neuromechanics Lab. “That really suggests that no matter what kind of topic we’re presenting, and it’s been diverse, people are hungry to learn about neuroscience.”

Modern neuroscience is about a century old, but research has really hastened over the past 20 years, mostly due to the development of new tools and technology, according to Stanley. 

“Neuroscience has always pivoted around advances in techniques and technologies that enable us to better measure and manipulate different aspects of the networks of the tens of billions of neurons in the brain and the rest of the nervous system," he says.

Also, federal government support through programs like the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative are helping to drive research, “accelerating our understanding of both normal brain function, and function related to a range of neurological disorders,” says Stanley, whose own research is all about making sense of what all of those neurons are saying to each other.


Exploring the Network

The researchers who form GTNeuro are approaching the problem of understanding the brain and the nervous system from many directions with a diverse toolbox.

Ting’s work, for example, draws from neuroscience, biomechanics, rehabilitation, robotics, and physiology, which has led to discoveries of new principles of human movement. Her research is used by other researchers across the planet, to understand both normal and impaired movement control in humans and animals, and to develop better robotic devices.

Meanwhile, the lab of Petit Institute researcher Craig Forest is perfecting a robotic cleaning technique to automate and improve neuroscience research, and looking for ways to record what’s happening deep inside the brain.

“Our mission is to develop the tools that make new science possible,” says Forest, associate professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering.

His lab developed a technique that will allow the pipettes used in patch-clamping to be reused over and over again. Patch-camping, the method used to stimulate and record neuron activity, involves touching the cell membrane with a glass pipette – a painstaking, prolonged process, and these pipettes are typically used only once.

The new cleaning process, integrated with the Autopatcher (robotic patch-clamping technology from the Forest lab), saves money on pipettes while gathering more data, faster.

The lab of Hang Lu, Petit Institute researcher and professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, also is in the business of gathering large-scale data, through engineering BioMEMS (Bio Miro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) and microfluidic devices. These ‘Lab-on-a-chip’ tools are used to study how the nervous system develops and functions, and how genes and environment influence behavior.

“We’re a little different in terms of the space we occupy in neuro-research on campus,” says Lu, who was co-director with Stanley of the neuro-focused Suddath Symposium. “Functional researchers like Garrett or Rob Butera are very much down to the neurons and circuits. My lab’s approach is complementary.”

Butera (who holds a joint appointment in BME and ECE) and his lab colleagues have developed an implanted device that stimulates the vagus nerve to treat chronic inflammation, while also targeting and inhibiting unwanted nerve activity.


High Aspirations

Butera was principal investigator of the vagus nerve study, but the lead researcher was grad student Yogi Patel, who represents the next generation of neuroengineering.

“We’re actually working with a clinician at Emory to try and push this into some human evaluation,” says Patel, a fifth-year Ph.D. student. “That’s the key thing, to get this approved so it can be used in patients. It’s very promising.”

So is his future in neuroscience research. He already has a postdoctoral position lined up at Johns Hopkins University.

“It’s a fundamental neuroscience lab, more science than engineering,” says Patel, who is also serving as a consultant to industry on the side. “Long term, I still want to have my own research lab one day.”

It’s an aspiration that became a reality for Annabelle Singer less than a year ago, when she joined the Coulter Department at Georgia Tech and Emory, where her lab is exploring how neural activity guides behavior in health and disease. She was a lead author of recently published research demonstrating a non-invasive, flickering light treatment that reduces the build-up of plaques closely associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

This radically different approach has lots of promise, she says, but like so much else in a relatively nascent field like neuroscience, there are flights of steps to go before it can be translated into therapeutics for humans. Singer believes she’s in the right place to take those steps.

“There’s a culture of collaboration here, a kind of unity of purpose,” says Singer, who also recently joined the Petit Institute. “That was a big appeal for me.”

So was Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and the Neuro Design Suite at the Petit institute, and the complementary research of colleagues who are all trying to make better sense of the brain, like Stanley, who wants to read and write the neural code.

“Patterns of activity in the brain are a language of sorts, but a language we don’t yet understand,” he says.

It only weighs about 3.3 pounds, but the human brain is still mostly unexplored or virtually inaccessible. Stanley and his GTNeuro colleagues are out there, making their way and charting new paths in a gray matter frontier.

“How cells interact within the complex networks in our brain and nervous system underlies many diseases and disorders,” Stanley says. “The advent of new tools for dissecting circuits within the nervous system gives us, for the first time, the ability to actually ‘see’ and interact with the networks in a very specific and precise manner, perhaps leading to new insights and discoveries for treating a range of neurological disorders and diseases.”




Neural Design Suite

Neural Engineering Center

Neuromechanics Lab at Emory

Center for Advanced Brain Imaging



Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience

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Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience

February 27, 2017 | Atlanta, GA

Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurodegenerative conditions involving abnormal folding of proteins, may help explain the emergence of life – and how to create it.

Researchers at Emory University and Georgia Tech demonstrated this connection in two new papers published by Nature Chemistry: “Design of multi-phase dynamic chemical networks” and “Catalytic diversity in self-propagating peptide assemblies.”

“In the first paper we showed that you can create tension between a chemical and physical system to give rise to more complex systems. And in the second paper, we showed that these complex systems can have remarkable and unexpected functions,” said David Lynn, a systems chemist at Emory who led the research. “The work was inspired by our current understanding of Darwinian selection of protein misfolding in neurodegenerative diseases.”

The Lynn lab is exploring ways to potentially control and direct the processes of these proteins – known as prions – adding to knowledge that might one day help to prevent disease, as well as open new realms of synthetic biology. For the current papers, Emory collaborated with the research group of Martha Grover, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, to develop molecular models for the processes.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is well-established – organisms adapt over time in response to environmental changes. But theories about how life emerges – the movement through a pre-Darwinian world to the Darwinian threshold – remain murkier.

The researchers started with single peptides and engineered in the capacity to spontaneously form small proteins, or short polymers. “These protein polymers can fold into a seemingly endless array of forms, and sometimes behave like origami,” Lynn explained. “They can stack into assemblies that carry new functions, like prions that move from cell-to-cell, causing disease.” 

This protein misfolding provided the model for how physical changes could carry information with function, a critical component for evolution. To try to kickstart that evolution, the researchers engineered a chemical system of peptides and coupled it to the physical system of protein misfolding. The combination results in a system that generates step-by-step, progressive changes, through self-driven environmental changes.

“The folding events, or phase changes, drive the chemistry and the chemistry drives the replication of the protein molecules,” Lynn said. “The simple system we designed requires only the initial intervention from us to achieve progressive growth in molecular order. The challenge now becomes the discovery of positive feedback mechanisms that allow the system to continue to grow.”

The researchers used mathematical modeling to help guide the experimental work.

“Modeling requires us to formulate our hypotheses in the language of mathematics, and then we use the models to design further experiments to test the hypotheses,” said Grover. “In this project, the hypotheses were sometimes invalidated by these further experiments, but ultimately this led us to a better understanding of the underlying chemical and physical events and their interactions."

The research was funded by the McDonnell Foundation, the National Science Foundation’s Materials Science Directorate, Emory University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, the National Science Foundation’s Center for Chemical Evolution and the Office of Basic Energy Sciences of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Additional co-authors of the papers include: Toluople Omosun, Seth Childers, Dibyendu Das and Anil Mehta (Emory Departments of Chemistry and Biology); Ming-Chien Hsieh (Georgia Tech School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering); and Neil Anthony and Keith Berland (Emory Department of Physics).

- Written by Carol Clark, Emory University

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February 27, 2017 | Atlanta, GA

Triboelectric nanogenerators (TENG) convert mechanical energy harvested from the environment to electricity for powering small devices such as sensors or for recharging consumer electronics. Now, researchers have harnessed these devices to improve the charging of molecules in a way that dramatically boosts the sensitivity of a widely-used chemical analysis technique.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have shown that replacing conventional power supplies with TENG devices for charging the molecules being analyzed can boost the sensitivity of mass spectrometers to unprecedented levels. The improvement also allows identification to be done with smaller sample volumes, potentially conserving precious biomolecules or chemical mixtures that may be available only in minute quantities.

Though the mechanism by which the enhancement takes place requires more study, the researchers believe the unique aspects of the TENG output – oscillating high voltage and controlled current – allow improvements in the ionization process, increasing the voltage applied without damaging samples or the instrument. The research, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA Astrobiology Program and the Department of Energy, is reported February 27 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology

“Our discovery is basically a new and very controlled way of putting charge onto molecules,” said Facundo Fernández, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemistry and Biochemistry who uses mass spectrometry to study everything from small drug molecules to large proteins. "We know exactly how much charge we produce using these nanogenerators, allowing us to reach sensitivity levels that are unheard-of – at the zeptomole scale. We can measure down to literally hundreds of molecules without tagging.”

Fernández and his research team worked with Zhong Lin Wang, a pioneer in developing the TENG technology. Wang, a Regents professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Materials Science and Engineering, said the TENGs provide consistent charging levels that produce quantized ion pulses of adjustable duration, polarity and frequency.

“The key here is that the total charge delivered in each cycle is entirely controlled and constant regardless of the speed at which the TENG is triggered,” said Wang, who holds the Hightower Chair in the School of Materials Science and Engineering. “This is a new direction for the triboelectric nanogenerators and opens a door for using the technology in the design of future instrumentation and equipment. This research demonstrates another practical impact of TENG technology.”

Mass spectrometry measures the mass-to-charge ratio of ions to identify and quantify molecules in both simple and complex mixtures. The technology is used across a broad range of scientific fields and applications, with molecules ranging from small drug compounds on up to large biomolecules. Mass spectrometry is used in biomedicine, food science, homeland security, systems biology, drug discovery and other areas.

But in conventional electrospray mass spec techniques, as much as 99 percent of the sample can be wasted during ionization, said Fernández, who holds the Vasser Woolley Foundation Chair in Bioanalytical Chemistry. That’s largely because in conventional systems, the mass analysis process is pulsed or scanned, while the ionization of samples is continuous. The new TENG pulsed power source allows scientists to time the ionization to match what’s happening inside the mass spectrometer, specifically within a component known as the mass analyzer.

Beyond improved sensitivity and the ability to analyze very small sample quantities, the new technique also allows ion deposition on surfaces, even non-conducting ones. That’s because the oscillating ionization produces a sequence of alternating positive and negative charges, producing a net neutral surface, Fernández said. 

Mass spectrometers require large amounts of power for creating the vacuum essential to measuring the mass-to-charge ratio of each molecule. While it’s possible that future TENG devices could power an entire miniature mass spectrometer, the TENG devices are now used just to ionize samples.

“The nanogenerators could eliminate a big chunk of the mass spectrometer system because they wouldn’t need a more powerful device for making the ions,” Fernández said. “This could be particularly applicable to conditions that are extreme and harsh, such as on a battlefield or in space, where you would need a very robust and self-contained unit.”

Triboelectric nanogenerators, developed by Wang in 2012, use a combination of the triboelectric effect and electrostatic induction to generate small amounts of electrical power from mechanical motion such as rotation, sliding or vibration. The triboelectric effect takes advantage of the fact that certain materials become electrically charged after they come into moving contact with a surface made from a different material. Wang and his research team have developed TENGs with four different working modes, including a rotating disc that may be ideal for high throughput mass spectrometry experiments. This paper is the first publication about an application of TENG to an advanced instrument.

Wang’s team has measured voltage levels at the mass spec ionizer of between 6,000 and 8,000 volts. Standard ionizers normally operate at less than 1,500 volts. The technology has been used with both electrospray ionization and plasma discharge ionization, with the flexibility of generating single polarity or alternating polarity ion pulses.

“Because the voltage from these nanogenerators is high, we believe that the size of the sample droplets can be much smaller than with the conventional way of making ions,” Fernández said. “That increases the ion generation efficiency. We are operating in a completely different electrospray regime, and it could completely change the way this technology is used.”

The TENG technology could be retrofitted to existing mass spectrometers, as Fernández has already done in his lab. With publication of the journal article, he hopes other labs will start exploring use of the TENG devices in mass spectrometry and other areas. “I see potential not only in analytical chemistry, but also in synthesis, electrochemistry and other areas that require a controlled way of producing electrical charges,” Fernández said.

The research was initiated by postdoctoral fellows in the two laboratory groups, Anyin Li and Yunlong Zi. “This project really shows how innovation can happen at the boundaries between different disciplines when scientists are free to pursue new ideas,” Fernández added.

This work was jointly supported by NSF and the NASA Astrobiology Program, under the NSF Center for Chemical Evolution, CHE-1504217. Research was also supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Sciences (Award DE-FG02-07ER46394), and the National Science Foundation (DMR-1505319). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsors.

CITATION: Anyin Li, Yunlong Zi, Hengyu Guo, Zhong Lin Wang, Facundo M. Fernández, “Triboelectric Nanogenerators for Sensitive Nano-Coulomb Molecular Mass Spectrometry,” (Nature Nanotechnology, 2016).

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