UCSB assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry Song-I Han received a 2011 New Innovator Award from the National Institute of Health last Tuesday for her work in protein interaction and its link to neurodegenerative diseases.

The NIH presented the award to Han and 48 other researchers nationwide at a conference in Bethesda, Maryland last week in addition to a $1.5 million grant to further her research. Han’s work involves using dynamic nuclear polarization to study intermolecular contact and interaction with an apparatus she developed from scratch in order to better understand neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

According to physics professor Mark Sherwin, Han’s work provides a revolutionary perspective on dynamic nuclear polarization.

“Song-I has a very innovative and creative way of looking at problems,” Sherwin said. “One thing that’s special about her is that she doesn’t just use experimental equipment that you can buy, but she has developed a new experimental method called dynamic nuclear polarization.”

Sherwin, who has collaborated with Han, said her research aims to comprehend currently unanswerable questions about bacterial diseases.

“Diseases like Alzheimer’s are in a special new class of diseases — they’re caused by bacteria, they’re not caused by viruses, they’re not cancer — and they’re diseases associated with proteins that normally are dissolved in solution, but sometimes, for reasons that are not totally understood, they aggregate,” Sherwin said. “Han’s research [addresses] basic important scientific questions about what happens to make these proteins aggregate, and by understanding these basic questions [her research] can hope to lead to some treatment of these diseases.”

Han received a doctoral degree in natural sciences from the Aachen University of Technology in Germany and completed her postdoctoral studies at UC Berkeley before joining the UCSB faculty in 2004. She has received the 2008 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering and the 2010 Dreyfus-Teacher Scholar Award.

Chemical engineering professor Bradley Chmelka said Han’s work with protein interactions is poised to make a significant impact in the medical field.

“[Han] was able to do [her research] with relatively modest resources and reach it to a point of relevance that has now caused the NIH to recognize it with this award,” Chmelka said. “She’s taken this basic scientific phenomenon of dynamic nuclear polarization and made it relevant to medical possibilities. NIH would not have recognized her unless [her work] showed great promise for the health and medical applications that she is seeking to bridge.”

The honor presents a unique opportunity for Han to receive a grant based on the initial findings of her pioneering research, according to Chemistry Department Chair Frederick Dahlquist.

“[The New Innovator Award] supports research in new areas; sometimes they’re the most difficult to get funded and these awards recognize that and are funded more on the basis of promise and a little bit of preliminary results,” Dahlquist said. “They awarded about 50 of these [grants] this year, and they’re generally given to younger faculty like Han who are bringing new ideas to bear on scientific [research].”

In addition to recognizing her scientific talent, Chmelka said the award illustrates Han’s position as a role model for other young researchers.

“It’s really inspiring for such an impressive young woman to have attracted this award,” Chmelka said. “She’s got two children and a young family. I think it’s very inspiring for young students to see her excelling, especially women students who can identify with her professional and personal roles.”