Interfacing In Brooklyn
When the Institute for Engineered Interfaces (IEI) housed by the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, held its inaugural conference on January 31, 2014, it drew experts from several research areas in science, engineering, and medicine. They gathered to present and hear talks whose titles like “Revelations from Glycomic Technology” and “Bio-inspired Optofluidic Lasers” might hold some abstraction at first read. But the work being undertaken at the IEI has deep practical meaning, as the solution to almost any technological or medical problem lies in understanding and controlling interfacial structure and interactions.
The faculty of the Institute—drawn from schools and departments across NYU—are engaged in everything from the study of the fundamental properties of interfaces, which are ubiquitous in nature, to the development of new medical procedures and new materials with unique properties for applications in several fields.
At the IEI, collaboration is much more than a buzzword. Located in Brooklyn’s Tech Triangle, the facility allows physicists, chemists, materials scientists, engineers, medical doctors, and others to study and work together on chosen projects. “It’s imperative to be in the same room and interact, even as students,” Avi Ulman, the Institute’s founder, explains. “A mechanical engineer and a dentist might think they have nothing to speak about, for example, but if they get together and brainstorm, who knows what they will come up with?”
The answer to that question is, undeniably, plenty. Below are just a few of the Institute’s researchers and what they are up to.
Professor of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology at the New York University College of Dentistry
“You’re probably accustomed to going to your doc- tor, having him draw some blood, and then waiting a few days for the results to come back from the lab,” Dr. Daniel Malamud, a Professor of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology at the New York University College of Dentistry, says. “But imagine that you’re in a remote village in Africa, and the doctor has to travel for hours by Jeep to reach you to test you for AIDS, malaria, or tuberculosis. By the time he gets the results and returns to treat you, it might be too late.”
Malamud works on what is known as Point-of-Care (POC) devices, self-contained tests that can give almost immediate results in non-laboratory settings. In addition to being exceptionally quick, the devices he is developing will be reasonably priced to purchase and use—less than a dollar in most cases. (For one test, he has been able to modify a simple penlight from Radio Shack, under which malarial DNA will fluoresce.)
A biochemist by training, Malamud acknowledges that engineers are vital to his work. “I can go to an AIDS conference, and every clinician there will have read the same journals and attended the same meetings,” he explains. “So you need to mix it up. You only make strides by interacting with others, and engineers and clinicians working together have been responsible for some of the world’s greatest medical advancements.”
“WHEN RESEARCHERS FROM THE MEDICAL SCHOOL WORK WITH THOSE FROM THE ENGINEERING SCHOOL, THE RESULTS ARE NOTEWORTHY.”
Professor of Medicine, Pathology, and Pharmacology
at the NYU Langone Medical Center; Director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute; and Chief of the Division of Translational Medicine
Doctors often explain that the goal of translational medicine is to take knowledge from “lab bench to bedside.” That process is facilitated when interdisciplinary teams work together, Dr. Bruce Cronstein—a Professor of Medicine, Pathology, and Pharmacology at the NYU Langone Medical Center; Director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute; and Chief of the Division of Translational Medicine—explains. “When researchers from the medical school work with those from the engineering school, the results are noteworthy,” he says. “We see new drugs developed, new technologies for monitoring heart rates, and new ways to detect seizures, among other developments.”
Cronstein himself is studying adenosine receptors, which could provide therapeutic targets for a vast array of medical problems, including sleep disorders, immune deficiencies, inflammatory conditions, and even cancer. “We’re going to provide the targets that chemical engineers can aim for,” he says.
He looks forward to many other re- searchers from the medical school participating in the IEI. “The more collaboration and communication, the better,” he asserts.
Associate Professor of Chemistry at NYU
NYU Associate Professor of Chemistry Lara Mahal’s presentation at the IEI conference on January 31 was considered something of a tour de force by the fellow scientists in attendance, but she is equally adept at explaining her work to laypeople—mainly through the power of metaphor. “Think of each cell as being sugar-coated—just like an M&M,” she says. “My work is to crack the code of what those sugars are telling us.”
In Mahal’s world, microRNAs can act as “decoder rings” and glycomes can serve as “canaries in a coal mine.”
Later, she might switch to a different analogy, explaining that if you can change a cell’s code, you can change the fundamental nature of how it interacts. “Think of it this way. When Cinderella was dressed in rags, she interacted with the people scullery maids normally interact with,” Mahal quips. “But change her into a ball gown, and all of a sudden she is interacting with princes. So maybe one day, we’ll make pathogenic cells interact like normal cells.”
She has a long history of conducting interdisciplinary research and looks forward to more at the IEI. “We need to start miniaturizing, so we can work at the single-cell level rather than at the tissue level,” she says. “Engineers can help with that.”
Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the NYU School of Engineering
“Interfaces are very important in my field, because when you intelligently bind two materials together, you can create a better material,” Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the NYU School of Engineering Nikhil Gupta explains. “The new material can be designed to exhibit any number of desired properties, including strength, lightness, and thermal or electrical conductivity. Carbon nanofiber reinforced composite materials have shown especially promising properties in our recent studies.”
The interface between organic and in- organic materials is one of the three areas of focus at the IEI (the others are “colloids and membranes” and “sensors and diagnostics”), so Gupta’s work is a natural fit. “Typically, the polymer with which I’m working is the organic part of the equation, and the reinforcement is either organic or inorganic,” he says.
The advanced composite materials he designs have applications in a variety of industries. Gupta has been working on lightweight body and vehicle armor for the military, and he points out that with new regulations concerning fuel efficiency for automobiles being enacted, it’s now particularly important that automotive designers have access to lightweight but strong composites. “Automakers are being required to nearly double the average fuel economy of new vehicles by 2025,” he says, “so there’s plenty of work that needs to get done at the IEI to help make that happen.”
Professor of Physics and Chemistry at the NYU School of Engineering
There are no resident musicians at the IEI, but perhaps there should be. It was, after all, while watching a violinist play that Professor of Physics and Chemistry at the NYU School of Engineering Stephen Arnold got a novel idea. He wondered what would happen if a dust particle landed on a violin string. The frequency, he knew, would change slightly. And what if something sticky was applied to the string that would respond only to certain types of dust?
Those thoughts led to his development of a new biosensor that set a record by detecting the smallest single virus in solution and reached a new breakthrough when it detected a single label-free cancer marker protein. (The sensor is treated with plasmonic gold nanoreceptors, which enhance its electric field and allow even the smallest shifts in resonant frequency to be detected.)
“The IEI is going to be very important in my work,” Arnold predicts. “Because every- thing is identified at the surface, it’s crucial to be able to engineer those surfaces.”