Photos by Dottie Stover
Archive: Research News
The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a five-year $250,000 grant to UC to become a site for the Center for Membrane Applied Science and Technology (MAST). The MAST Center has two sites: one at the University of Cincinnati and the other at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU).
Both the UC and CU sites conduct research to develop scientific and technical applications of biological and synthetic membranes. According to Sun-Tak Hwang and William Krantz, co-directors of the UC site, membrane technology has many life-impacting applications.
"A biomedical use of membranes would be an artificial kidney used in dialysis; an industrial application would be a desalination plant that takes salt out of ocean water to make fresh water," says Hwang. Krantz adds, "Everyone who has had heart surgery has gone on a membrane lung oxygenator; every premature baby has to go on one because the lungs are the last major organ to develop. When you combine all the different medical applications of this technology, you've saved a lot of lives."
Membrane technology shows up in many areas of our daily lives as well, such as extended wear gas permeable contact lenses and the regulated release and delivery of drugs. Krantz says, "Drug delivery is moving away from taking pills and going more towards more controlled methods. The nicotine patch is a good example: Instead of a big shot of nicotine all at once, the release is continuous."
Membrane technology also helps deliver drugs to a specific area of the body. "Glaucoma medicines, birth control drugs and hormones can be distributed locally at a controlled rate," says Hwang.
The latest use of membrane technology is helping diabetics. A sensor continually monitors the glucose level in the blood and sends the information to a second device that delivers insulin. "We're now at a point," says Krantz, "where we can deliver insulin in a totally different way. This really impacts the quality of diabetics' lives."
Krantz helped found the center in 1990 at CU and came to Cincinnati to work at the UC site in 2000. According to Krantz, the CU site conducts more research into classical applications like desalination, while research at the UC site is related to biomedical, environmental and pharmaceutical applications, and food and beverage processing. In contrast to CU, the Cincinnati site has its Colleges of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, Medicine, and Pharmacy all nearby, which facilitates interdisciplinary interactions in the areas of biomedical and pharmaceutical applications of membranes.
Krantz added that what really makes membrane research special at UC is the fact that the university's administration is solidly behind this effort. This is critical to maintaining the cross-disciplinary, intercollegiate cooperation that is pivotal to the structure of the MAST Center.
There are other facilities researching membrane technology, but MAST is the only one which is block funded by the NSF. MAST began as part of special NSF program designed to facilitate cooperative research between universities and industry.
A special significance of the MAST program is the involvement of industry, undergraduates and interdisciplinary faculty. "We keep at the cutting edge," says Krantz, "by partnering with industry." Industry sponsors annually submit requests for areas they would like MAST to research. The projects are then circulated throughout the various colleges and departments at CU and UC.
Another MAST hallmark is heavy student involvement in all projects. "We actually have more undergraduate involvement than we do graduate students," Krantz says. Significant leveraging on the NSF investment, university support, state investments and industry sponsors have been achieved through additional grants generated by the center. For example, the UC MAST site just received a $125,000 grant from the Ohio Incentive fund to facilitate the research on biomedical and pharmaceutical applications of membranes.
This year the UC MAST site also received a NSF grant for $290,000 that was earmarked for an undergraduate summer research program on campus. It will fund an intensive summer research program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). The REU program will bring 10 to 15 outstanding undergraduates to the UC campus for 10 weeks to work on research projects at the MAST center.
"This isn't just a minor trickle-down to the undergrad level," says Krantz. "This is a vigorous flowing-through of the research. We're impacting our undergraduates and providing the opportunity for a very relevant education, so that these students know what's going on out there in industry."
Hwang added that in essence the MAST Center is the balancing aspect in a triangle. One corner is the research that generates knowledge, another is the exceptional educational opportunities provided to students, and the third is the technology transferred to industry.
More information on the MAST Center is available by clicking here.