The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a CAREER Award to McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Tagbo Niepa, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering with affiliations and secondary appointments in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Bioengineering, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, and the Center for Medicine and the Microbiome. An NSF CAREER Award is given to people early in their careers who are believed to play a part in furthering their area of science. The awards support their research and educational goals.

Dr. Niepa’s proposal is entitled “Micromechanics and Metabolic Properties of Living Interfacial Materials.” This award of $663,372 will begin on February 1, 2022, and go through January 31, 2027.

The abstract for his work follows:

This Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award will support research to reveal how bacteria grow and adapt at the interface of water and oil, and at the interface of water and air. Films of bacterial aggregates, also called biofilms, are a ubiquitous form of microbial life. When they grow on solid-liquid interfaces, they can cause health problems like infections near joint implants. When biofilms grow at air-liquid interfaces, they can cause lung problems. How biofilms grow and adapt at these interfaces is not well understood. This work will first explore how bacteria cope with changes in surface tension and energy. Next, this work will study how bacteria’s adaptation to changing conditions can be manipulated to create new materials. Finally, this work will suggest how viruses and nanomaterials could be used to control bacterial development at fluid interfaces. The results of this work will ultimately be relevant for treating chronic lung infections or developing more effective treatment of crude oil spills using bacteria. Moreover, these research activities will motivate students to pursue STEM careers. The project will adapt professional engagement strategies to develop pre-college and college experiences for minorities, first-generation, and financially challenged students. It will promote an inclusive climate and facilitate these students’ academic success through a range of mentored experiences. Educational activities include a “Bugs as Materials” Camp, a college application workshop, and a summer experience for undergraduates.

The physicochemical mechanisms that regulate microbial growth in biofilms remain poorly understood, in part because of the versatility of microorganisms’ ability to respond to diverse environmental conditions. Even less well-known are the mechanisms governing the growth and metabolic responses of biofilms formed at the fluid interface. To test the overarching hypothesis that bacteria metabolize a patch of an interface and secrete a protective coating to thrive under harsh interfacial conditions, three objectives will be pursued: (1) systematically elucidate the viscoelastic properties and the physiology of interfacial films; (2) characterize the effects of phenotypic adaptation of bacteria under interfacial confinement on interfacial film mechanics; and (3) determine how the mechanical integrity of mixed interfacial films is altered by chemical and biological insults. Model organisms, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus, will help elucidate how films at bacterial interfaces form, and how the rheological properties are altered by physical, chemical, and biological insults.

Congratulations, Dr. Niepa!

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NSF CAREER Award: Micromechanics and Metabolic Properties of Living Interfacial Materials

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