New strides in research bring recognition and promise to the university

Publicity photo of Wilfred Chen Courtesy of Wilfred Chen
Dr. Wilfred Chen and his team of 10 students won the Food, Pharmaceutical & Bioengineering Division Award from the AIChE this past summer.

Staff Reporter

New strides in research conducted by the university’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has recently garnered recognition from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

Dr. Wilfred Chen is a professor of chemical engineering at the university, whose research earned him the Food, Pharmaceutical & Bioengineering Division Award from the AIChE this past summer. This award, granted annually, recognizes outstanding contribution to the field.

Chen’s team — ten chemical engineering and biochemistry graduate students — has been working on the awarded research since his arrival at the university.

“[My research] is trying to look at biological systems as individual parts, not that much different from building computers,” Chen said. “The idea, really, is to try to borrow different biological parts, and combine them together in a synthetic way, so that we can create brand new engineering applications, in this case.”

While the award recognizes contributions to a variety of fields, Chen sees the application of the teams’ developments lying in the medical field.

“We’re building what we call a biological computing device, using DNA,” Chen said. “The idea is to be able to put some of those devices into, let’s say, cancer cells, and then be able to detect the cancer specific markers, and use the specific marker to turn on a cell killing field.”

While the final application of this research has not yet been determined, Chen believes that his team is furthering the progress in that direction. Their biological computing device aims to not only identify cancer cells, but recognize and spare healthy cell tissue as well.

Recognition like this brings welcome attention to the research efforts carried out by graduate students and faculty.

“I think the award will help the visibility of the department,” Chen said, when asked what this award means for the future of the chemical and biomolecular departments. “We can continue to work on extremely high risk, but also extremely interesting, problems.”

Looking to the future, Chen hopes to see further strides in his area of research, along with others here at the university. While his team is working on more medicine-related applications of chemical and biomolecular research, other teams in the department are focusing on energy-related issues, such as the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation division.

“I think one of the things we talk about is how to use information … in particular, we generate a lot of data right now, and the question is how to we use it for different types of interesting problems,” Chen said. “So I think that could be one of the big new directions that we will be looking at.”

With the award bringing new recognition to the efforts of research at the university, Chen recognizes the importance of the efforts made by the graduate students on his team.

“I have ten graduate students right now,” Chen said. “So you can imagine that they are the wonderful people that get [a lot] of the work done.

“Everything has to be working together. If you’re missing one component, then it’s not going to work.”

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