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Assistant Professor Lorraine Leon has been named a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. The award will fund Leon’s research that develops biomaterials-based reactors that could make industrial products such as fuels, pharmaceuticals, and fine chemicals in more efficient, selective, and ecofriendly ways. The biomimetic design is based on liquid droplets that form within cells called nucleoli. These droplets have multiple liquid layers that confine the necessary components for a chemical reaction in each layer and exclude others. Leon will use peptides to create these multilayered and dynamic materials and incorporate enzymes to catalyze the chemical reactions. Biomaterials education of K-12, undergraduate, and graduate students are integrated throughout this project through the development of bilingual (English/Spanish) experiences and content aimed at increasing Hispanic participation in science, technology, engineering, and math careers.

 

Tapping into Molecule Builders to Design New Materials

Assistant Professor Lorraine Leon

College of Engineering and Computer Science

CAREER Grant: $550,000.

Assistant Professor Lorraine Leon is a chemical engineer who spends her time designing materials that mimic the properties of natural biomaterials. She does this by creating molecules based on peptides (small proteins) that are programmed to assemble into larger structures and adapt to different types of stimulation.

If successful, these new biomaterials could be useful in a variety of fields from medicine to energy. Leon and her team of five students are focused in two areas:

  • Designing carriers for potentially life-saving drugs and nucleic acids that can help patients battling diseases such as cancer and
  • Building new biomaterials used to create dynamic ecofriendly reactors.

She’s inspired by nature. It was in college that she learned that biomolecules organize into larger structures through self-assembly. There is no outside force guiding them. That is why understanding the design of biomolecules is so important. The building instructions for things like the cell wall are programmed into the molecule. It’s the molecular design that is key to being able to build new materials for broader application.

“The NSF Career grant will help us design new biomaterials used to create dynamic ecofriendly reactors,” she says. “We will accomplish this by designing new peptides that assemble into multilayered liquids containing functional proteins called enzymes. Inside of cells these type of transient structures are used to control chemical reactions.”

With more than a dozen peer-reviewed journal articles and another dozen invited lectures, Leon is on her way to becoming a master builder of these new materials, which hold so much promise.

Before joining the materials science and engineering department at UCF in 2017, she spent five years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. She holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from City University of New York and a bachelor’s degree in the same field from University of Florida. At UCF, her lab is located at the College of Medicine at Lake Nona and she is also an affiliate member at UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center.

Like the other UCF award recipients, Leon is passionate about preparing the next generation of scientists. She does this through the several courses she teaches, and the mentorship in her lab. She works closely with two doctoral candidates and three undergraduates. She publicly thanked one of those students – Sara Tabandeh – on her Twitter account when notified about the award earlier this month.

“Both Ph.D. students have been part of the lab from the beginning,” Leon says. “They were instrumental in getting the lab set up, and are excellent lab citizens, they each manage specific instrumentation, mentor undergraduates, in addition to conducting research towards their dissertation. The undergraduates help the graduate students with their research and eventually transition to individual projects. I have a great team.”

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