West Virginia University has received a $3 million grant that could ultimately improve health care, energy, homeland security, the environment and transportation in the state and the nation. The grant comes from the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program of the National Science Foundation.

The program has been developed to meet the challenges of educating Ph.D. scientists and engineers with interdisciplinary backgrounds, deep knowledge in chosen disciplines and technical, professional and personal skills. The program will establish new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. It is also intended to facilitate diversity in student participation and preparation, and to contribute to a world-class, broadly inclusive and globally engaged science and engineering workforce.

The WVU funded project is called Research and Education in Nanotoxicity at WVU (REN@WVU). The grant, one of only 18 awarded this year, joins researchers from the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and will provide graduate students unique opportunities to pursue research and innovation in the field of nanotoxicity.

REN@WVU will train graduate students to address one of the most important scientific issues today; understanding how nanomaterials interact with biological systems and using that knowledge to design safer nanomaterials and safer nanomaterials applications. Lack of understanding of how nanomaterials interact with biological systems is one of the biggest barriers to realizing the potential of nanomaterials in solving challenging problems in health care, energy and electronics.

The grant will train researchers to ensure that scientific understanding of the interaction of nanomaterials with people and the environment keeps pace with the development of new nanomaterials and their applications in consumer products. The training will also focus on teaching young researchers how to communicate their research, not just to their peers, but to the general public.

“The number of new nanomaterials being developed is rapidly outpacing our ability to understand their potential impacts. This imbalance must be addressed if nanomaterials are to be appropriately regulated, used and accepted by the public,” said Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, Ph.D., professor of physics and principal investigator for the grant.

Leslie-Pelecky goes on to say that the challenge is not simply to analyze more materials faster. Nanomaterials, by virtue of their size, have novel chemical and/or physical behaviors. These unexpected properties have turned many of the fundamental tenets of classical toxicology on their heads. REN@WVU links traditional toxicology with the unique behavior of nanomaterials, using research, coursework and professional development to create a new paradigm for training graduate students.

The five-year grant will support four fellowship trainees in its first year, nine in the second, and 11 in each of the following three years. Trainees will receive a $30,000 stipend (renewable for up to four years), health insurance and all tuition and fees.

A one-week ‘boot camp’ at the start of the program will help students learn the vocabulary and background necessary to communicate and work in interdisciplinary research. Trainees will participate in modular interdisciplinary coursework customized to their research interests and career goals. Professional development workshops will bring in leading communicators to help hone necessary skills for future leadership in industry, government and academia.

A few of the many areas of study included in award include understanding how inhaled natural and engineered nanoparticles can impact cardiovascular function, designing safer nanoparticles for drug delivery and medical imaging and creating new tools for real-time nanotoxicity testing.

The project will link research disciplines. Each graduate student will have co-advisors; one that focuses on nanomaterials (physical scientist or engineer) and one that focuses on biological or biomedical aspects (health sciences or arts and sciences disciplines). Leslie-Pelecky describes this design as similar to a bi-lingual education, creating a bridge between scientific disciplines that frequently speak different languages.

“Most of the significant problems in science—physical or biomedical— that people are working on require an interdisciplinary approach. This is the work environment that our students are going to enter and they need to learn how to work as part of an interdisciplinary team,” said grant co-principal investigator Peter M. Gannett, Ph.D., the Robert C. Byrd Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and interim chair of the Department of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences in the School of Pharmacy. “The students, by virtue of working across disciplines will necessarily bring faculty together, increasing collaborations and the potential for extramural funding and recognition.”

Partnership with the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety provides trainees access to unique equipment and expertise. The interdisciplinary team of principal investigators includes Dr. Vincent Castranova, chief of the pathology and physiology branch at NIOSH. Other co-principal investigators include Gannett; David Lederman, Ph.D.; Robert L. Carroll, professor of physics; and Robin S. Hissam, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

West Virginia University has a strong commitment to nanotechnology research. In 2004, the University created the WVNano Initiative. WVNano is the state of West Virginia’s initiative for nanoscale science, engineering and education. The WVNano Initiative is fully aligned with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Vision 2015, the state’s science and technology plan in which research and innovation are key drivers of West Virginia’s economy.

For more information about the program, contact Diandra Leslie-Pelecky at (304) 293-6867 or via e-mail at Diandra.Leslie-Pelecky@mail.wvu.edu.

-WVU-

rh/06/20/12

CONTACT: Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, professor of physics
304.293.6867, Diandra.Leslie-Pelecky@mail.wvu.edu

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