Hoffman Wins National Science Foundation Early CAREER Award

Brenton Hoffman, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, has been awarded a National Science Foundation Early CAREER Award. The award supports outstanding young faculty members in their efforts to build a successful research enterprise and comes with a five-year, $500,000 grant.

Hoffman is a pioneer in the nascent field of mechanobiology. Traditional medicine has long focused on how cells communicate within the body through chemical signals and how to treat diseases by modifying those signals. Cells also communicate and respond to physical forces, however, and this side of the biological coin has long been overlooked.

“We want to start pulling apart how the chemical and mechanical aspects of biology talk to and understand one another,” said Hoffman.

To help literally shed light on this question, Hoffman’s laboratory has developed biological protein sensors that emit different colors of light depending on how much force is being applied to them. Each cell is connected to the environment around it through protein complexes called focal adhesions. By understanding how cells react to different stresses and strains applied to these structures, Hoffman hopes to learn how cells communicate and react through mechanical forces.

With the support of the new grant, Hoffman’s laboratory will control mechanical variables of a cell’s surrounding environment—such as its shape and stiffness—to determine how cells react. He will also use genetic engineering to modify the cells’ physical characteristics to see what roles they may play in human health and disease.

Hoffman’s grant also supports public outreach, for which he is teaming up with Shodor—a national resource for computational science education. Shodor teaches local teachers and students how to code and create Java applets to promote science education. Hoffman wants to create educational tools to show how mechanobiology—and many other developing fields—can bridge traditional silos of education.

“Historically, students have been taught physics, biology, chemistry and math separately and haven’t learned how they’re all connected,” said Hoffman. “I want to build resources to facilitate an integrative education, because they’re really all just part of one big world.”