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Two faculty members receive NSF CAREER awards

Two Vanderbilt engineering assistant professors have received prestigious 2010 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program awards.

Jamey Young, chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Haoxiang Luo, mechanical engineering, each received awards totaling $400,000, issued for the next five years.

Young’s grant – Metabolic Determinants of Programmed Cell Death in Hepatic Lipotoxicity – will support his research into the mechanisms by which saturated fatty acids (SFAs) induce metabolic dysfunction and cell death in liver tissues.

Luo’s grant – Flapping In The Wind – Passive Mechanisms In Insect Wings For Flight Stabilization – will support his research on computational modeling of the insect flight physics that has potential to develop biomimetic micro air vehicles (MAV).

The Faculty Early Career Development awards are considered NSF’s most prestigious honor for junior faculty members. They are given to exceptionally promising college and university junior faculty who are committed to the integration of research and education and who are most likely to become academic leaders.

Serum free fatty acids are typically elevated in individuals who suffer from obesity and type-2 diabetes. Liver cells respond by accumulating these fatty acids and incorporating them into complex lipids. This excess lipid accumulation leads to a condition known as Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), which is estimated to effect up to 30% of the American population.

Although NAFLD is a benign condition in most individuals, in some cases it can progress to more severe disorders including cirrhosis, chronic liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma. As a result, NAFLD is now the leading cause of referrals to hepatology clinics in America. Unfortunately, the factors that influence disease progression are poorly understood, and therapeutic strategies for preventing or reversing NAFLD are limited.

By developing a molecular understanding of hepatic lipotoxicity—focusing especially on the early metabolic events that initiate cellular dysfunction and programmed cell death — Young’s work is expected to contribute fundamental insights that will ultimately lead to improved therapies for NAFLD and related disorders.

Jamey YoungFunds from this award will also support Young’s work to develop hands-on lessons that demonstrate life-science concepts to elementary and middle-school children while motivating healthy behaviors. These lessons will emphasize how the body regulates its energy metabolism and will be disseminated through collaborations with Vanderbilt Student Volunteers for Science (VSVS) and Nashville’s Adventure Science Center (ASC).

Young joined Vanderbilt in 2008 from MIT, where he was an NIH Ruth Kirschstein Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Young received his B.S. degree in chemical engineering from the University of Kentucky in 1999. He received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Purdue University in 2005, where he was supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Insects such as bees, dragonflies, and butterflies possess amazing maneuvering skills. One particular inspiration from these flyers is to develop autonomous and highly agile MAVs which will be used in future search, rescue, monitoring and reconnaissance.  To date, the physics involved in the insect flight remains poorly understood.  This is because the flapping wings have entirely different aerodynamics than conventional aircraft and their unique features require new approaches of investigation.

Haoxiang LuoLuo and his group will utilize high-performance computing and simulations to model the flow-structure interaction of the insect flight, which involves the flapping-wing aerodynamics, the insect-body dynamics, and the structural dynamics of flexible wings.

The state-of-the-art computational approach developed through Luo’s research can be applied in several other biophysical problems as well, e.g., hydrodynamics of fish swimming, vocal fold vibration during voice production and hemodynamics of blood flow in elastic vessels. Course modules will be developed from these problems.

Undergraduate and high school students will have opportunity to capture live insects and observe their exquisite wing motions using high-speed cameras, and they will also design and build their own insect prototypes.

Luo received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.  He received a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from University of California-San Diego in 2004. Luo was a postdoctoral researcher first in UC-San Diego and later at George Washington University before he joined Vanderbilt in 2007.  In 2008, he received the Doctoral New Investigator award from the American Chemical Society, Petroleum Research Fund.