Chen receives NSF CAREER Award

Photo of Dr. Zhilei ChenDr. Zhilei Chen, assistant professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University, has been awarded a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As a recipient of the prestigious award, Chen will receive $400,000 throughout the next five years for her research, which will develop  a novel protein polymer hydrogel as a general scaffold for the immobilization of enzymes and bioactive proteins.

Enzymes are versatile catalysts and are playing an increasingly prominent role in modern biotechnology, Chen notes. However, poor long-term stability and difficulties in recovery and recycling of enzymes in solution have greatly hampered their usefulness in biotransformation, she says.

Immobilization of enzymes on solid supports can significantly enhance their stability and enable convenient recycling and recovery. Chen’s proposed protein hydrogel takes advantage of intein-mediated protein splicing/ligation to form an inter-connected network of protein polymers. Successful completion of this project will provide a general method for the synthesis of protein hydrogels that densely and efficiently incorporate multiple bioactive proteins with a highly controlled molecular architecture, Chen says.

Insights from these studies, she adds, will benefit several industries employing biocatalytic processes; advance the ability to assemble efficient enzymatic pathways for biotransformation and enzymatic fuel cells; and facilitate the creation of new bioactive protein hydrogel scaffolds for tissue engineering and drug delivery applications.

Chen completed her undergraduate studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai, China in 2000, and earned her Ph.D. at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2006. She went to the Rockefeller University for postdoctoral studies before joining Texas A&M's chemical engineering department in 2008.

At Texas A&M, Chen's research focuses on applying protein engineering principles for biotechnology applications. One of her interests is to develop new proteinacious material for use in tissue engineering and biofuel cells, such as protein hydrogels as protein/enzyme immobilization scaffolds. She is also working on engineering agents for the treatment of various viral infections, including hepatitis C virus and HIV, and the identification of novel drug targets.

The CAREER Award was established to support junior faculty within the context of their overall career development, combining in a single program the support of research and education of the highest quality and in the broadest sense. Through this program, the NSF emphasizes the importance on the early development of academic careers dedicated to stimulating the discovery process in which the excitement of research is enhanced by inspired teaching and enthusiastic learning.

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