In the School of Chemical, Materials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Georgia (UGA), biochemical engineering research is driven by innovators in their own right.
Among them is Dr Yajun Yan, a professor who received UGA’s 2020 Award for Excellence in Research.
Dr Yan leads research in the microbial production of biofuels and high-value chemicals. In 2018, he was part of the team that developed a new genetic “smart circuit” to rewire microorganism metabolism, essentially turning them into miniature machines for specific tasks.
“Cells are not happy when they are regulated; they will produce only what’s necessary for their growth. Our method tells the cell to switch from growth mode to production mode,” Dr Yan explained.
Such breakthroughs at UGA consistently lead to the development of new technologies in energy, environment and health. His innovations have received six issued US patents so far.
That’s how Dr Yan came to be named 2018 Academic Entrepreneur of the Year, which recognised his entrepreneurial spirit in advancing scientific impact through start-ups BiotecEra Inc. and HGG Research LLC.
He started BiotecEra Inc. with his colleague Yuheng Lin, to create eco-friendly microbial technologies for pharmaceutical and chemical industries. This includes developing 5-hydroxytryptophan products to address depression, insomnia, and anxiety in humans as well as milk fever in dairy cows.
Suffice to say, Dr Yan’s research and teaching benefit greatly from each other.
“My research helps me integrate the emerging concepts and technologies into my teaching materials and inform students of the most recent progress in our field. The interactions with students during my teaching also inspire me to get new ideas and approaches to address many research problems,” he shared.
Connecting biochemical engineering niche to network
At its most creative, a scientific mind is a Petri dish for ingenuity. Biochemical engineering students at UGA are aware of their potential to contribute to real-world change, which they go on to cultivate in focused research labs in the School of Chemical, Materials and Biomedical Engineering.
Here, expert faculty members engage PhD and Master’s students in research that advances technologies, disciplinary understanding, and the world itself.
This is the importance of leaders like Dr Mark Eiteman from the Comprehensive Molecular Bioengineering Lab. He holds UGA’s 2014 Inventor’s Award, having created several technologies to industrially produce commodity and chemicals using microorganisms.
These include amino acids used in animal feed and nutritional supplements as well as a group of organic acids used in the production of polymers, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. His inventions have been licensed to four multinational companies, where they are manufactured and distributed for industrial benefit.
On top of that, Dr Eiteman is a named inventor in five US patents and many more abroad.
A firm believer that engineering problems don’t have easy answers, Dr Eiteman encourages his students to truly understand the various approaches to solving technical problems.
He believes students bring “great diversity” to instruction and research. In his words, “I have had some students ask me questions or come up with ideas that I never would have thought of, but that often leads to new insights and innovation.”
Realise your potential with postgraduate courses
Engineering solutions for the future means optimising renewable sources, and what better energy source to tap into than the sun?
Acknowledging clean energy as the “need of the century,” Dr Ramaraja Ramasamy, professor and Associate Dean in the UGA College of Engineering, has been working on harvesting electricity directly from plants since 2013.
For every photon of sunlight a plant captures, it produces an equal number of electrons. This allows them to convert electricity more efficiently than solar panels.
How does this process work?
“We have developed a way to interrupt photosynthesis so that we can capture the electrons before the plant uses them to make these sugars,” said Dr Ramasamy.
His technology involves separating out thylakoids — which capture and store energy from sunlight — from plant cells. Then, researchers can manipulate the protein to redirect these electrons through carbon nanotubes.
Dr Ramasamy and his collaborators are working to scale the invention into commercialisation based on this early framework.
“In the near term, this technology might best be used for remote sensors or other portable electronic equipment that requires less power to run,” he said.
“If we are able to leverage technologies like genetic engineering to enhance the stability of the plant photosynthetic machinery, I’m hopeful that this technology will be competitive to traditional solar panels in the future.”
To join the pursuit for innovation at UGA’s School of Chemical, Materials and Biomedical Engineering, take on the MS Biochemical Engineering or PhD in Engineering – Biochemical Engineering Emphasis. Students with a background in chemical, environmental, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, biomolecular, or bioprocess engineering are welcome to enrol.
A robust scientific community awaits, ready to tackle persisting challenges with novel solutions — and the next big idea could just come from you.
Like this? Then you’ll love…