Jennings Receives NSF Early CAREER Award to Create Materials Resistant to Biofilm

July 29, 2020 - Dr. Amber Jennings, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Herff College of Engineering, has received a 2020 National Science Foundation Faculty Early CAREER Development Award to design materials with a novel synthetic biofilm-disrupting molecule bound to their surfaces. The five-year, $543,551 grant is titled “Tethered biofilm dispersal signals for long-term protection of engineering materials.” Biofilms form when bacteria attach to surfaces. Because biofilms protect the bacteria, they are often more resistant to traditional antimicrobial treatments and evade immune systems, making them a serious health risk in the fields of health care, environmental engineering, chemical engineering, food preparation and more.

“My hope is that this research leads to materials that can prevent or treat deadly infection — materials that we need now more than ever,” said Dr. Jennings. “I am so excited to receive funding to further pursue this meaningful project that has been in the works for some time. This award would absolutely not be possible without the efforts of my collaborators and students plus assistance from the UofM’s Office of Research Support who helped in crafting and submitting the proposal.”

Jennings’ research will explore whether tethered biofilm inhibitors are active against bacteria while attached to the surface and how they are released from the surface under various environmental conditions. The different types of surfaces tested will include those used often in engineering: metals, polymers and ceramics. The engineered surfaces will also be evaluated to ensure that they are not harmful to human cells.

“Funding for much of the preliminary data used in developing this award submission was made possible by a Development Award from the FedEx Institute of Technology and many of the students who gathered that preliminary data were supported by the UofM’s Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (TLSAMP),” said Rick Sweigard, dean of the Herff College of Engineering and PI for the UofM’s Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program.  “It is fantastic news that in addition to supporting groundbreaking research, this NSF CAREER award will impact a broad range of students including undergraduate, graduate, interns from Southwest Community College, and K-12 students.”  

Educational and science collaborators on the grant include:

• Dr. Daniel Baker, Department of Chemistry, University of Memphis 
• Graham Thomas, director of outreach, TN Achieves
• Dr. Amy Waddell, coordinator, Biotechnology Technical Program, Southwest Tennessee Community College
• Dr. Rick Sweigard, dean of the Herff College of Engineering and PI for the UofM’s Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program
• Dr. Stephanie Ivey, Department of Civil Engineering and associate dean for Research, Herff College of Engineering; director, Girls Experiencing Engineering

In the pursuit of collaborative research, this interdisciplinary project will engage students from multiple science and engineering fields from across the University of Memphis and Southwest Tennessee Community College. In addition to research activities, students at the undergraduate, graduate and community college level will also be trained in effective communication strategies for multiple audiences in order to overcome their fear of public speaking, a skill needed for success in advanced studies in science and engineering. 

The project will engage at-risk middle and high school students through interactive activities in hopes of promoting the advancement of underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups in science and engineering careers. Engagement efforts will be achieved by collaborating with existing programs including the year-round Girls Experiencing Engineering program sponsored by the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis and held at the Herff College of Engineering and with TN Achieves Job Shadow Days for high school students across the state.

About NSF Early CAREER Awards  
The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards 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 or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

Louis Stokes was a pivotal leader in the quest for civil rights, equality, and social and economic justice throughout his lifetime as a public servant in the United States Congress. In his honor, the National Science Foundation established the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program in 1991 to increase the number of under-represented minority students with degrees in STEM related fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This critical program encourages minority students to achieve Baccalaureate degrees and to not stop there — but to push further for a graduate education in STEM fields.