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Two Engineering Graduate Students Earn Summer Research Fellowships in Japan

Monday, June 13, 2011

Two graduate students from the University of Kansas School of Engineering will spend the summer overseas working alongside top researchers in Japan, thanks to a prestigious fellowship program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Adam J. Mellott is a third-year doctoral student in bioengineering from Overland Park focused on stem cell research. Tiffany Suekama is a second-year doctoral student in chemical engineering from Brighton, Colo., who is researching hydrogels and their potential in the food industry.

They will take part in the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes, a NSF-sponsored program that provides a $5,000 stipend and covers the costs of airfare, living expenses and an orientation in Washington, D.C., before they head to Japan.

At KU, Mellott works in the laboratory of Michael Detamore, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, conducting research on stem cells. In Japan, Mellott will spend 10 weeks at the University of Tokushima on Shikoku Island, focusing on a process known as RNA (ribolic nuclear acid) interference. This process temporarily prevents the body from producing certain proteins, which provides scientists with clues about how the body permanently copes with viruses.

“It’s still a very new field of study, but the hope is that this tackles major viruses, maybe even HIV one day,” Mellott said.

Mellott will spend his fellowship under the direction of professor Eiji Tanaka, researching how to enhance the overall RNA interference process by studying how RNA delivery methods differ between the United States and Japan. That spirit of collaboration is a key component of the East Asia Pacific Summer Institutes program.

“I’m hoping to make new contacts, some new friends and have some personal growth,” Mellott said. “I’d like to see how science is conducted outside the U.S., to see what researchers are interested in in other countries and what approaches they take to designing experiments. This experience will help make me a better scientist and a better researcher.”

Suekama researches hydrogels in the laboratory of Stevin Gehrke, professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. Hydrogels are a highly absorbent polymer material commonly used in contact lenses, diapers and tissue engineering to help in repairing bone and cartilage, but they are inherently soft and weak, limiting their suitability for many of these applications.

In Japan, Suekama will work in the lab of the world-renowned hydrogels researcher Jian Ping Gong in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. Gong’s research team is a leader in the synthesis of high-strength gels. Her lab has also developed novel test methods for quantifying how gels fail. At KU, Suekama has been performing gel failure tests by one method — compression — a method with a number of limitations. Gong’s group has developed complementary failure tests — under tension and by tearing — that overcome these limitations.

Suekama hopes her work with Gong will introduce her to the latest techniques in utilizing hydrogels and provide her with valuable experience that she will bring back to her lab at KU.

“I’ve had hit some snags in some of my own research, especially in molding techniques and the ability to test high-strength materials for fracture properties,” Suekama said. “Gong has the capability to synthesize and measure the mechanical properties of high-strength hydrogels, so it would be great to gain that knowledge and be able to work alongside someone who’s so great and learn more cutting-edge science.”

Suekama hopes to utilize her knowledge of hydrogels to work in the food industry, developing new preservatives or breaking new ground on the use of hydrogels in other culinary areas.

Mellott and Suekama said they would each be far enough from the area devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture on March 11 that it should not directly affect their summer institute fellowships.

Mellott earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from KU n 2008. He is the son of Francis Mellott of Overland Park and a graduate of Blue Valley West High School.

Suekama earned a bachelor’s degree in 2008 from Colorado State University-Fort Collins.

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