Penn State professor receives NSF CAREER award to study mechanobiology of cell differentiation

Esther Gomez, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering, Penn State, has received the National Science Foundation's (NSF) prestigious Early Career (CAREER) award to better understand the mechanobiology of mesenchymal-epithelial transition (MET).

MET is a cell differentiation process in which a cell transitions from a moving cell to a stationary cell. This transition is important during development of the kidney and heart and contributes to metastasis and formation of secondary tumors during cancer.

During these processes, the stiffness of the cell's local environment can change. It is currently unclear how these mechanical changes influence a cancer cell's ability to integrate into tissues at distant locations within the body during metastasis. The $500,000 CAREER award will be used to support a graduate student to do the research and to provide support for educational and outreach activities.

"Through this research, we are hoping to gain a better understanding of how the stiffness and chemical properties of the environment of a cell impacts characteristics of the cell, including its ability to migrate and its ability to exert forces," said Gomez. "The new knowledge gained will provide the foundation for development of a model system that will facilitate studies aimed at advancing epithelial tissue engineering and identification of therapeutic approaches targeting cancer."

As part of the award, Gomez will teach a first-year seminar course aimed at highlighting some of the altruistic goals of engineering and mechanobiology research, such as the development of engineering solutions for health and well-being. Gomez and her graduate student will also develop and implement a workshop for teachers in grades 6-12 in collaboration with the Penn State Center for Science and the Schools focused on biomechanics and mechanobiology concepts and how engineering research impacts society. After the workshop, Gomez and her graduate student will provide assistance to teachers with implementing a hands-on research project within the classroom.

NSF CAREER awards aim to support 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.

"Esther is a tremendous colleague and we congratulate her on receiving this CAREER award," said Phillip Savage, chemical engineering department head and Walter L. Robb Family Endowed Chair. "Though still early in her career, Esther has shown the ability to broaden her research portfolio via collaboration and make important contributions to new research fields. She is also engaged in scholarship related to engineering education, which enhances our reputation in this area as well."

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