UMass Professor Awarded NSF Grant

By Elizabeth Wallace and Jackson Cote

(Jessica Picard / Daily Collegian)

Professor Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan of the Chemistry Department at the University of Massachusetts received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), worth $1.8 million, to create the Center for Autonomous Chemistry (CAC).

Although the Center will be located on the UMass campus, there will be researchers from three partner institutions, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, involved, making this a multi-university research center.

“This kind of funding, where we are multi-institutional and we are leading it, shows that UMass is a leader in a cutting-edge field where the federal funding agencies are willing to invest a large sum of money” Thayumanavan said.

The UMass President’s Office provided the seed funding for the CAC, establishing the center with a small staff, allowing it to compete for the funding from the National Science Foundation. The Funding from NSF comes from the Center for Chemical Innovation (CCI).

The CAC will give numerous students the opportunity to work in the center from undergraduates to post-doctoral researchers.

CAC is a project in Phase I, which means it “[receives] significant resources to develop the science, management, and broader impacts of a major research center,” according to the NSF.

The Center is among a small group awarded this funding around the country. According to Thayumanavan, this is the beginning of a process allowing the CAC to compete between the second and third year for $40 million for 10 years, which is Phase II of the NSF’s Center for Chemical Innovation.

In a University press release, Peter Reinhart, director of the Institute of Applied Life Sciences at UMass, which is home to the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, said, “I am excited that the significant campus investment into cutting-edge core equipment facilities such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, mass spectroscopy, electron microscopy and the Nikon Center of Excellence in Light Microscopy are enabling this exciting work on autonomous chemistry.”

Currently, the Thayumanavan Group researches supramolecular chemistry. According to Thayumanavan, organic compounds traditionally bond covalently; supramolecular chemistry seeks to program these compounds to bond noncovalently.

At the intersection of biology and chemistry, the Center for Autonomous Chemistry will seek to design artificial autonomous systems, like the immune system’s reaction to a pathogen upon the pathogen entering the body, which is a natural autonomous reaction, according to Thayumanavan.

Thayumanavan said, “For example, would we be able to take medication, and if it happens to be the wrong medication, the wrong diagnosis, but because we don’t have the infection, the medication will automatically know that it is not supposed to release the drug even though you took the medication…We don’t have that kind of capability now.”

Additionally, Thayumanavan said, “You could coat the airplane wings with an autonomous material which will fix a crack, but it will not fix the crack until there is a crack. So, in mid-flight if there is a crack, there could be a mechanical healing agent.”

At the CAC, the researchers will study the fundamentals necessary for the creation of the previous examples: “We are interested…to understand the chemical fundamentals because we need to understand it at the most molecular level, what would be the structural features that we need to incorporate into these molecules in order for us to evolve these types of materials…We are interested in understanding the fundamentals that will lead to those types of functions.”

Thayumanavan said, “It is a Center for Chemical Innovation, that phrase itself tells you what they’re looking for is a really innovative aspect, almost futuristic, research, so it has to be visionary. And the fact that UMass is leading it with these other very good institutions…says a lot. It does put us on the map.”

Elizabeth Wallace can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @ER_Wallace. Jackson Cote can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.