Ndukaife receives NSF Early CAREER Award to investigate cell-to-cell communication

Justus C. Ndukaife, assistant professor of electrical engineering, has received a prestigious NSF CAREER Award for foundational research in cell-to-cell communication. His CAREER project, “Resonant Dielectric Optical Metasurfaces for Single-Cell Extracellular Vesicles Analysis,” will enable Ndukaife to associate the properties of extracellular vesicles directly to their cell sources—up to the resolution of single cells—a capability that has so far remained elusive.

Justus C. Ndukaife

The five-year, $508,000 grant will support the use of optical nanostructures to selectively capture EVs as they are released by a single cell without damage and analyze the single-cell secreted EVs to enable correlating the function of the EVs directly to their cells of origin. This will address a gap in knowledge that is key to enhancing the understanding of EVs and to better enable their applications in therapeutics and diagnostics.

The award also includes international education and outreach activities to young scholars in West Africa in collaboration with the University of Nigeria, as well as local outreach activities in Nashville.

His work on single-molecule trapping using opto-thermo-electrohydrodynamic tweezers was featured in an article that appeared in Nature Nanotechnology in 2020. Optical tweezers use a tightly focused laser beam to trap particles and have emerged as a powerful tool in biological research providing the means to non-invasively manipulate microscopic objects such as biological cells. This work led to a Chancellor’s Award for Research in 2021.

Ndukaife also was selected as a global Rising Star of Light by the Nature family journal Light Science and Applications and was invited to present this research paper at the global iCANx talks. His presentation on optical nanotweezers was viewed by over 260,000 researchers worldwide that brought enhanced visibility to his research work and to Vanderbilt.

Ndukaife joined the Vanderbilt engineering faculty in 2017. He received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Purdue University  in 2017.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Ndukaife’s award is under the Division of Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems, National Science Foundation Award #2143836.

Contact: Brenda Ellis, 615 343-6314