New summer research program focuses on how we educate engineers


April 5, 2021

Compared to traditional engineering disciplines such as electrical, mechanical, chemical and computer, the field of engineering education has a low profile.

“I certainly wasn’t aware of it as a student,” said Brooke Coley, an assistant professor of engineering at The Polytechnic School, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “My academic background is in biomechanics or the science of slips, trips and falls. But I was introduced to engineering education as an area of research during a postdoctoral policy fellowship at the National Science Foundation, and what I discovered was immediately compelling.” Art graphic for the new ENGagED undergraduate research experience at ASU ASU Assistant Professor Brooke Coley is launching a new undergraduate research experience to expand awareness of engineering education and diversify talent within the field. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU Download Full Image

Engineering education, with an emphasis on social justice, is now the focus of Coley’s career. The field’s research initiatives range across domains including theoretical frameworks for learning, educational technology, assessment, recruitment and retention, professional practice and more. Coley says this research is important because it shapes and supports the training and development of better engineers.

“And while many current faculty members in engineering education, like me, found the field through serendipity,” Coley said, “there is a strong likelihood that numbers of today’s students will find value in exploring this discipline and consider it as an option for graduate school and ultimately as a career. So, it’s imperative that we provide early opportunities for student exposure and experience rather than relying on chance.”

Toward that end, Coley has been awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant to launch a new research experience for undergraduates, or REU. The primary goal of this annual, summerlong program — called Establishing New Generations of Scholars to Amplify and Grow Engineering Education, or ENGagED — is to cultivate a diverse talent pool of new engineering education researchers while promoting the visibility of the field.

“This ENGagED REU also has the potential to attract more students to pursue engineering graduate studies in a way that traditional engineering fields may not,” Coley said. “Rather than solving concrete technical problems in a laboratory, this discipline integrates approaches from social behavioral sciences and processes from traditional engineering environments to evaluate and enhance the entire enterprise of engineering. In such, the work aims to shift engineering environments away from monolithic ways of doing in order to establish more inclusive and just practices while also serving to help diversify our professional community.”

For example, it could be a valuable means to recruit people from populations currently underrepresented in engineering. Coley points out that Black and Latino people make up less than 4% of university graduate students across all engineering disciplines. Consequently, the ENGagED program is seeking to recruit at least 75% of its undergraduates from the Black and Latino communities, from both four-year and two-year institutions, and ideally with gender parity across the group.

The inaugural session of the 10-week ENGagED REU is scheduled from May 17 to July 30. It will be led by Coley and Denise R. Simmons, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida and a co-principal investigator on the NSF grant. Ten undergraduate students from across the United States will be compensated $6,000 each to participate virtually, working in cohorts of two people. Each cohort will be led by a faculty member and a graduate student who will collaboratively supervise and mentor the undergraduate cohort pair through an engineering education research project.

In addition to the faculty who are leading the research cohorts, Coley and Simmons have assembled a regionally and topically diverse group of engineering education researchers — known as the Faculty Scholars Network — to engage with the REU students through formal instruction, interactive seminars and informal support.

“With regard to these faculty members, we combed the country with intention to expose the REU students to expert researchers representing a breadth of subject areas and methodological approaches in our field,” Coley said. “They will conduct seminars presenting their research, but perhaps more significantly for the participants, they will dialogue with the students about the story behind their research, including the process of developing their professional interests, navigating challenges and unanticipated outcomes, and thriving professionally as an underrepresented person in engineering. We really want to humanize these faculty scholars in the eyes of the students and give them access to different stories because there are myriad pathways to engineering education.”

Coley says these personal interactions will be particularly meaningful because she believes there is tremendous value in establishing a network that truly mentors, develops and supports these students to positively impact their career decisions.

“Independent of the direction they ultimately pursue, this experience will serve students well in any future engineering capacity,” Coley said. “ENGagED will provide a comprehensive foundation that has the ability to grow student interest in engineering education research while transforming the field itself.”

Interested students should submit their application materials for the summer 2021 ENGagED REU by April 9. Questions should be directed to Brooke Coley at bccoley@asu.edu.

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-5622

Biomaterials bolster the battle against cancer

ASU research first to modulate immune system metabolism during chemotherapy


April 5, 2021

According to Abhinav Acharya, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Arizona State University, “a single form of treatment is often not sufficient to defeat a given form of cancer."

"We need a combinatorial approach, meaning the use of two or more therapies together.” Artistic rendition of new technologies that will advance cancer treatments ASU Assistant Professor Abhinav Acharya is developing novel technologies that will permit the simultaneous use of cancer vaccines and chemotherapy treatments. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU Download Full Image

For example, the tandem application of chemotherapy with immunotherapy or vaccine use could be much more effective than either measure alone. But the problem, Acharya said, is that each of these therapies is so taxing on the human immune system that they can’t be deployed simultaneously with a patient.

Solving this problem is the focus of a new project that Acharya is leading with the support of a grant from the National Institutes of Health. He is developing the first biomaterials-based technologies to modulate the functions of immune system cells in a way that can enable safe and effective combinations of clinical treatments to battle melanoma, ovarian cancer and potentially many other ailments.

Acharya works at the interface of materials science and immunology in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU. His research for this NIH project focuses on cancer vaccines and applying the functions of their two major components: antigens and adjuvants.

Antigens trigger the immune system to create antibodies that attack a specific pathogen or toxin. These substances might take the form of inactive components from the targeted pathogen itself or, in the case of Acharya’s work, drugs tailored to induce a desired defense response.

Adjuvants are salt- or emulsion-based vaccine components that stimulate and amplify the immune system’s response to the particular pathogen targeted by the antigens. In other words, antigens identify the foe and adjuvants fuel the fight.

Part of Acharya’s work is developing novel adjuvants based on polymeric biomaterials generated from central carbon metabolites. The resulting polymers act as a source of cellular nutrients, and they can be fabricated either as microparticles or nanoparticles depending on their purpose.

“If the particles are micron-sized, they mimic the size of bacteria. If they are nanoparticles, they mimic the size of viruses,” Acharya said. “In either case, the immune system sees this foreign material as a threat and tries to digest it.”

This act of consumption is the key to delivering biomaterial-based nutrients to the body’s immune system when it is dampened during chemotherapy treatment. These nutrients can restore the chemo-suppressed metabolic pathways that enable sentinel-like dendritic cells to sound the alarm and prompt T-cells, a form of white blood cells, to fight the cancer.

Alongside rescuing the metabolic processes that help boost the body’s defenses, another goal is to disrupt the equivalent pathways that feed cancer cells. This latter task shapes three aims of this project, which specifically seeks to improve skin cancer treatment.

The first aim is to formulate and deliver a drug that disrupts a particular enzyme in the metabolic pathway of cancer cell glycolysis, which is the conversion of glucose into adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, a key fuel for cellular life. Halting this energy production pathway starves the cancer of the energy it needs to proliferate.

The second aim is similarly to formulate and deliver a drug targeting an enzyme in the metabolic pathway of cancer cell glutaminolysis, which is another means to generate ATP and other cancer-sustaining molecules within a tumor.

“And the third aim is to demonstrate that we can achieve these formulations at a scale to permit production for clinical use,” Acharya said.

Challenges to this work include generating a T-cell response that is robust enough to operate effectively in the context of both chemotherapy and the nutrient-deficient environment that the enzyme-targeting technology is creating in and around a tumor. But Acharya is confident of success after positive initial tests with cancerous human tissue in a laboratory setting.

Additionally, his interdisciplinary view of research already points to other applications for the innovations emerging from the NIH project.

“This is really a platform technology, so we can develop metabolic-modifying biomaterials for many purposes,” he said. “We are working right now with Dr. Marion Curtis, an immunologist with Mayo Clinic, to determine how to deploy this new technology against other types of cancers. As well, there may be new remedies for traumatic brain injuries and opportunities to better combat autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and so much more. The potential is very exciting.”

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-5622