UC Santa Barbara mechanical engineering professor Megan Valentine was awarded a $1.8 million grant by the National Science Foundation through the “Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future” program. The goal of the project, made possible by the grant awarded to Valentine and her team of four other scientists, is to create a design framework to accelerate the design, manufacturing and use of autonomous biotic-abiotic biomaterials. 

Courtesy of Megan Valentine

“I’ve had informal interactions with members of our team for years, and we have been thinking about how to combine our collective expertise to create new classes of materials that can perform complex tasks, like crawling and lifting,” Valentine said. “I am very excited for the opportunity to pursue this work, which I anticipate will lead to new foundational knowledge of how living materials perform complex tasks, while enabling new applications in healthcare and robotics.”

The team consists of five faculty researchers from UCSB, the University of Chicago, Syracuse University, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of San Diego. Of the five members, four are women, including Valentine. 

“I hope that through this award we can both elevate the visibility of women in science and engineering disciplines and lower the barriers for anyone to work with next-generation biomaterials,” Valentine said. 

According to Valentine, the work of the team builds on a number of prior successes in her lab concerning protein- and polymer-based materials. Their project seeks to create biotic-abiotic devices that harness bacteria cells and protein-based motors to power hydrogel actuators. According to Materials Today on ScienceDirect Magazine, hydrogel actuators are 3D polymer networks filled with water. The level of water in these networks changes based on external stimuli, such as temperature and light exposure, and is meant to mimic how plants are able to move and twist through varying the amount of water in cells and tissues. 

“Organisms and living tissues can do incredible things — move, respond to stimuli, adapt and heal,” Valentine said. “By contrast, most man-made materials are pretty simple and are typically optimized to a single task. Through this project, we will develop methods to incorporate living cells into hydrogels in order to capture the adaptive and multifunctional properties of living materials in robust engineering materials.”

Valentine said this can have broad uses in healthcare, packaging and robotics. To approach this project, the main methods that will be used at UC Santa Barbara[[UCSB]] specifically are high-resolution microscopy, 3D printing, cell culture and micromechanical testing of bio-hydrogel materials. Valentine’s main role in the project is leading the hydrogel design work and the development of the methods for mechanical characterization of the device prototypes. 

“This involves understanding how the hydrogel will respond to stretching, how it will interact with cells and proteins, and how we can optimize the coupling between the biological and manmade elements to improve the ability of the materials and devices to change shape, lift and move,” Valentine said. 

According to Valentine, the team’s collective expertise ranges from genetics and molecular biology to protein biophysics and materials science to advanced modeling and instrument development.

“By bringing together experts in theory, computation, bioenabled manufacturing, experimental characterization and design, we can tackle bigger scientific questions than any member could answer alone,” Valentine said. “I am looking forward to collaborating with a team of experts to establish frontier materials of biomaterials science and synthetic biology and am eager to see what new solutions and creative synergies emerge.”

When Valentine was awarded a Fulbright Scholar award to collaborate at The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution in 2015, she said the importance of female science teachers and female S.T.E.M. faculty in higher education who can serve as role models and mentors was often emphasized. Equally emphasized was the importance of encouraging students to do hands-on experiments, such as building equipment, exploring robotics and coding. 

So, team-driven science, Valentine said, and a research atmosphere that promotes and rewards open exchange, creativity, risk-taking and cooperation to push the boundaries of scientific discovery is one that she works hard to create. She plans to recruit and supervise students who will gain hands-on training in cutting-edge biomaterials research. 

“The grant will provide opportunities for training students in how to incorporate biological circuits and elements into designer materials and then the deployment of those materials in useful devices that can move, grab and lift,” Valentine said. “This type of interdisciplinary training will help the students and postdocs who work on the project become the next generation of leaders in engineering and materials science.”