Two Texas BME faculty, Assistant Professor Sapun Parekh and Assistant Professor Samantha Santacruz, have received Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF). CAREER awards are among the NSF’s most prestigious 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. 

Parekh Sapun

Sapun Parekh has received an NSF CAREER award for a project exploring naturally occurring biological materials and understanding how we may be able to use them for societal challenges.

The five-year, $550,000 award will facilitate Parekh’s study of biomolecular condensates and how they might be used for enhanced drug delivery and industrial catalytic applications.

Biomolecular condensates, which are self-assembled cellular compartments composed of proteins and other macromolecules, have garnered significant interest in recent years as they have been shown to be responsible for various biochemical reactions in cells and could be ideally suited for fine-tuning drug delivery. Currently many of the nanoparticles and microparticles used for drug delivery are polymers or synthetic polymers, which have some limitations.

Biomolecular condensates are different from other materials because they consist of proteins and therefore are highly customizable. They have the potential to be manipulated so that drugs may release at different times in different places, under a variety of circumstances. The challenge currently is that the fundamental material and chemical properties that drive biomolecular condensates are unknown. Parekh and his team are taking a chemical and biophysical approach to exploring the space of how to use biomolecular condensates as containers for drugs or other materials. They are interested in better understanding the rules of biomolecular condensates, figuring out how to manipulate these proteins to deliver different drugs, and ultimately creating a blueprint to serve as a foundation for future research.

The project will also focus on outreach and workforce development by providing hands-on learning opportunities in the field of optics. Parekh is developing a practical course in optical microscopy for underrepresented populations of first-generation high school students and enlisted military personnel, where participants will be given the opportunity to build a microscope as they use it. Following completion of the course, participants will be able to work as mentored summer researchers alongside Parekh and other labs to see how their skills translate into cutting-edge research.Samantha Santacruz

Samantha Santacruz has received an NSF CAREER award to develop and leverage a neural interface technology to characterize neural circuits impacted by anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent neuropsychiatric illness in the U.S. One challenge is that anxiety disorders develop from disruptions in highly interconnected groups of brain areas, which are referred to as neural circuits, and the appropriate technologies to characterize these neural circuits are lacking. This five-year, $580,000 award, will allow Santacruz to develop novel scalable, penetrating multimodal neural interfaces to record deep-brain structures over an extended period of time, with an ultimate goal of mapping the neural circuitry in multiple areas of the brain that are linked together in information processing during behaviors that are impaired in instances of anxiety disorder.

Unique aspects of the project include the flexible materials that will be implanted in brain tissue and the scale of study. Flexible materials will minimize both damage to tissue and the body’s natural response to fight a foreign body. Today when researchers want to understand what’s happening in multiple regions of the brain typical tools include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and while this is a powerful resource for many exercises, it doesn’t provide a fine spatial scale of understanding for what’s going on in multiple areas. This project’s focus on a neural circuit, or a grouping of brain areas that will be characterized together, is innovative.

Santacruz’s research focuses on finding technology-based solutions to disease. This project aligns with that in that she is seeking to find alternatives to drug-based therapies for anxiety disorders by better understanding the neural circuitry, which may then lead to development of neural interface tools that could be used for treatment, including deep-brain stimulation. Deep-brain stimulation has been developed primarily for motor disorders, such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy and tremor. Santacruz is interested in exploring how this approach could be used for treatment of psychiatric disorders, and this research will provide a fundamental step forward to influencing future paradigms for stimulation to treat anxiety.

As part of the project, Santacruz is also developing outreach activities, including a series of articles for children that will be published in Frontiers for Young Minds, a scientific journal whose audience includes kids and where articles are reviewed by children for accessibility. Santacruz is also developing curriculum for undergraduates in Texas BME to provide a neural engineering emphasis to the four core research tracks available to students.