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Engineering Majors Make Big Waves on Research Next Website

Two College of Engineering majors were recently included in a Research Next article about Rising Researchers and their “research ambitions.”

“As the commonwealth’s flagship public research university,” the article began, “UMass Amherst provides a unique opportunity for students to conduct hands-on research early in their academic careers. This semester, we honor six undergraduates with the Rising Researcher award for their highly ambitious pursuit of research and scholarly activity.”

Research Next is the campus's official window into the research, scholarship, and creative activity that distinguishes UMass Amherst as a top research university. “Our story is told through the voices of the faculty, students, and staff who, through their work, are creating a brighter future for us all,” as the website explains. The Director/Editor in Chief is Karen J. Hayes, '85.

Research Next reported that:

Chemical engineering major and Commonwealth Honors College student Brandon Johnston ’18 is conducting experimental research investigating the basic principles of self-assembly in charged polymer systems. His efforts have enhanced the field’s understanding of the ways in which polymer architecture can be used to drive self-assembly. Self-assembly can be harnessed to expand the use of a dense, polymer-rich liquid phase called coacervate, which is used in polymer-based materials applications ranging from sensors to catalysis to medicine.

While these types of materials have been commonly used in the food, cosmetics, and fragrance industries for years, a basic understanding of their self-assembly is still limited. Johnston has been working in collaboration with polymer science and engineering professor Todd Emrick and his group to synthesize a portfolio of highly controlled “comb” polymers with different chemical compositions. Johnston then utilizes these materials to investigate the effects of polymer architecture composition on complex coacervation.

This past spring, Johnston compiled the results of his studies on polymer architecture as the lead author on a peer-reviewed manuscript that was recently published in Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry and has two other manuscripts in the works. Johnston has been honored with three separate Commonwealth Honors College Research Assistant Fellowships, as well as an Honors Research Grant to support his thesis research this year. Johnston’s research advisor, Assistant Professor Sarah Perry, says “Brandon’s leadership in my research group has been a critical asset over the past three years. He is by far the strongest undergraduate researcher of the more than forty students that I have had the pleasure of working with.”

Resarch Next also ran another research profile on an equally talented engineering major:

Mechanical engineering major Jamar Hawkins ’18 has a strong interest in biomechanics and bioengineering. A hard-working and highly motivated student, Hawkins has been a member of Assistant Professor Yubing Sun’s research group since Sun started his lab in 2016. “The lab conducts research in the field of mechanobiology and mechanotransduction, which is the transfer of a mechanical signal or load to a cellular response,” says Hawkins.

Hawkins specifically works on modeling the physical effects of the extracellular matrix (ECM) on cells using microfluidic devices and automated pneumatic regulators. He initially worked on an automated pressure-based cell-stretching device that could emulate the changing conditions of the ECM to allow the study of cellular behavior in an environment that is more similar to it.

“Jamar has made tremendous contributions to the equipment setup and assay development in the lab as well as made significant progress on his project of making a programmable, local cell stretching device to study how mechanical forces regulate cell behaviors,” says Sun. Hawkins is co-author of a book chapter in Methods in Molecular Biology (Springer, 2017) based on his work in developing cell force sensors. Another manuscript based on his current work is in preparation, says Sun.
“Jamar will pursue a doctoral degree after graduation with me. I am delighted that I will have such a talented student,” says Sun.

“These accomplishments demonstrate great promise for future academic and career success,” said Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement Michael Malone about the various researchers in the article. (December 2017)