Pratt Center Receives $2.9 Million NSF Grant

A center at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering has received a $2.9 million National Science Foundation grant to start a two-year graduate research education curriculum that will teach students how to use engineering principles to explore natural materials and processes.

Such research could lead to biologically-based products of societal benefit or to basic laboratory discoveries about living structures and systems.

The interdisciplinary Center for Biologically Inspired Materials and Material Systems (CBIMMS) will develop the Graduate Training in Biologically Inspired
Materials program. The award was announced by the federal agency Jan. 16.

"This curriculum is unique to Duke, and unique nationally," said
CBIMMS director Robert Clark, who is also a Pratt School professor of
mechanical engineering and materials science as well as senior associate
dean.

Clark said the instructional method will also be "unique
internationally" in that it will address various scales of biological
materials, from the size of individual molecules upward to complete
organisms, not just for medical applications but also for a broader range
of technological and societal needs. And while the training will take an
engineering perspective, it will not necessarily turn out graduate
engineers, he added.

The curriculum, a blend of classroom and laboratory experiences as
well as summer industrial internships, will instead be open to students who
ultimately get their doctorates in disciplines such as chemistry, physics
or cell biology, as well as biomedical engineering or mechanical
engineering and materials science.

"The critical issue is whether we can educate students who will take
some engineering tools into a program like cell biology," Clark said. "And,
vice versa, can we have students who have been trained in the biological
sciences bring that information into engineering?

"This era has been labeled the Century for Biology, and I think this
program is a way to bring engineering, especially the material sciences
area, into these discoveries."

David Needham, another Duke professor of mechanical engineering and
materials science who will serve as the program's director of graduate
studies, predicted the program will "revolutionize the way we engineer in
the life sciences at the graduate student level. It will use nature as an
example for engineering, while at the same time explaining nature by using
engineering principles and rigor."

Needham contrasted this future with the way traditional engineers now
use various tools to test properties of the "hard and dry" materials that
go into today's products. The Duke program, he said, will instead prepare
students to develop the tools and techniques to understand, and perhaps
engineer, the "soft and wet" materials of nature, which function at scales
as small as a billionth of a meter.

Needham, who is the CBIMMS co-director, already works with graduate
students in a research program in biologically based materials, such as
microscopic capsules called liposomes that carry chemotherapeutic agents
through the bloodstream to destroy tumors.

Besides supporting a new training curriculum, he said the National
Science Foundation funding will also provide students with badly needed
support during the initial two classroom years of graduate school, before
they traditionally enter the laboratory full-time and begin being supported
by research grants.

Clark noted the new graduate curriculum will also fund undergraduate
students, especially women and under-represented minorities, who wish to
enter this emerging new field.

"We will have a number of opportunities to work within the program at
the undergraduate level," Clark said. "One of the distinguishing features
of Duke University is the active involvement that undergraduates have in
research activities."