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Foundation Professors Focus on Green Chemistry, Cancer Research

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Two new Foundation Distinguished Professors in the School of Engineering bring a wealth of private- and public-sector expertise and experience that will help KU broaden its teaching and research ambitions.

“They bring expertise and they bring energy,” Michael Branicky, Dean of the School of Engineering, said as Steve Soper and Mark Shiflett settled in on the Lawrence campus this fall.

Soper, who also has an appointment in KU’s Department of Chemistry, comes from the University of North Carolina; he researches “lab on a chip” technologies that can help diagnose and treat diseases. Soper will also work closely with researchers at KUMC to transition new discoveries from his labs into KUMC labs. Shiflett, who will conduct research at KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, spent most of his career at DuPont, while also serving as an adjunct professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware. 

“It's nice to come to a university that's growing — particularly in the sciences and engineering,” Shiflett said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”

Soper, who earned a doctorate in bioanalytical chemistry from KU in 1989, said he’s glad to return and build a legacy at the university that helped launch his career.

“This is a great opportunity, being a foundation professor,” Soper said. “It gives me a lot of latitude to help build programs and leave a mark here.”

Foundation Professors

The Foundation Distinguished Professors program has been underway at KU since 2014 — a partnership between the university and the state of Kansas to attract 12 eminent scholars to support one or more of the university’s four strategic initiative themes. A nominee must be distinguished as a scholar, but they must also show ability and interest in teaching, interdisciplinary work and university affairs.

It’s a tall order.

“With that comes visibility and expectations,” Soper said. “And it is our job to deliver on those expectations.”

Indeed, both men have superlative track records. Shiflett holds more than 70 patents — the number is still growing. Soper, meanwhile, holds 12 patents and has published more than 300 papers in peer-reviewed journals, two books, five book chapters and more than 70 refereed conference proceedings. Both men hold multiple honors for their research.

It’s to be expected, then, that both professors have hit the ground running. Shiflett, for example, received a major equipment donation from DuPont and was able to bring most of his laboratory equipment with him.

Soper, meanwhile, brings his startup company, BioFluidica, with him; it will have research efforts headquartered in incubator space at KU. He also founded and continues to direct the NIH Center of BioModular Multi-Scale Systems for Precision Medicine, and his research has funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the private sector.

The NIH research, Soper said, “will be very attractive, because it's going to serve as new venues for training (KU) students learning how to do multidisciplinary research.”

Why KU?

Both men said they were attracted to KU, in part, by the School of Engineering’s dramatic growth — especially in facilities — in recent years.

“When they brought me in and interviewed me they took me through the new engineering building, LEEP2, and the labs and the facilities there are just state of the art,” Shiflett said. “And that's where my labs currently are located and they're some of the nicest I've seen anywhere in the country. So that as a researcher was very attractive.”

Soper agreed.

“The first thing I always look for when I come on a campus is cranes — for new buildings coming,” Soper said. “Right up the street here there's a couple of new buildings that are going up. And that's always a good sign. That means resources are expanding and are coming on board to help faculty do their jobs.”

Shiflett’s work focuses on “green chemistry” and “green engineering,” helping industry develop processes that use less energy and materials — with benefits to both those companies and to the environment. He’s known for helping develop a refrigerant that helped save the Earth’s ozone layer. And there’s more work to come.

“For example whether, you feel strongly about climate change or not, I think it's always good to develop processes that produce less (carbon dioxide), because it's a waste product — if you're able to produce less of it then it’s likely you’re using less energy to make products and run processes. It’s not just good for the environment — that's good for the companies that are spending the money on energy.”

Soper’s “lab on a chip” research, meanwhile, intends to give doctors simple tools to more easily and quickly diagnose conditions ranging from stroke to a variety of cancer-related diseases, just by analyzing a drop of blood from the patient.

Such tools could be of particular use to rural doctors and patients located far away from the big, expensive diagnostic equipment used in big-city hospital.

“A physician in Hays, Kansas is many miles from the Cancer Center in Kansas City — but they could have top end technology to help manage their patients,” Soper said. “So now we have the opportunity to take these exotic tools and distribute them into physicians’ offices in rural areas so they can help manage their patients.”

Working With Students

Foundation Distinguished Professors, of course, also have to distinguish themselves as teachers — and both professors say they plan to dig into the classroom, plus bring students into the lab.

“I love the ability to mentor students. I mean that's my favorite thing I do,” Soper said. “I've already seen a lot of excitement in the students — graduate and undergraduate —and I'm looking forward to having them be part of our discoveries in our program.”

Shiflett agrees.

“I'll probably have up to five or six undergraduate students each semester through the summers doing research with me and what I'll do is pair them up with Ph.D. students and post-doctoral students so they can mentor them and help them become more familiar with how to do research,” he said. “There's plenty of projects where a talented junior or senior could make a lot of contributions in the lab.”

Now it’s time to get started.

“KU is a great university. It always has been and it always will be,” Soper said. “And with these new foundation professors here, I think they're going to really do a good job of help spawning new programs and activities and energize the campus to do some exciting things.”


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