South Dakota State University assistant professor Anamika Prasad is making history.
Prasad is the first Department of Mechanical Engineering faculty member to receive the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award. The five-year, $531,740 grant will support basic science research using plants as an inspiration for designing and developing flexible composite materials.
“This award is a strong validation of the ideas I developed at SDSU where I identified an exciting opportunity to apply my fundamental engineering knowledge towards promoting the region’s biobased economy and workforce,” said Prasad. Her lab at SDSU, the Prasad lab for Materials Research, applies engineering tools to study a range of materials from plants and bones to metallic alloys and emerging material systems.
Before coming to SDSU in 2016, Prasad's research focused on the structure and mechanics of bone and cardiovascular tissue and related biomedical devices in collaboration with medical doctors. To develop research relevant to South Dakota’s agriculture-based economy and to SDSU’s land-grant mission, the materials scientist began exploring fast-growing plants, such as sunflowers, from an engineering perspective.
“Translating knowledge from human cardiovascular system to water conductive tissue in plant and from bone to plant stem structures has been an exhilarating process," said Prasad, who earned her Ph.D. in material science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and did postdoctoral research in bioengineering at Stanford University.
Recognizing innovative research
“On a professional front, receiving the CAREER award opens a whole set of opportunities for my lab and students and for my department and college,” Prasad said. “Research many times becomes a lonely undertaking, especially when your ideas do not see the light of the day. Now, I have this unique opportunity to implement my ideas and contribute to my discipline and my community—people will pay attention to my lab’s work.”
Mechanical engineering department head Yucheng Liu, the Duane Sander Endowed Professor in Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said, “This is a milestone for the department to fulfill the commitment to fundamental research directed towards transformative advances in materials science and insightful knowledge in bioinspired composites.”
Associate dean for engineering research Rajesh Kavasseri said, “It’s very heartening to see Dr. Prasad’s patient pursuit of bold research earn national recognition. She has established a fundamentally innovative research program in biomaterials and biocomposites that is certain to spawn many more interesting discoveries and elevate the research profile of our college.”
Developing bioinspired composites
For composite materials, balancing multiple—and many times conflicting—requirements is one of the biggest challenges going forward, Prasad said. “Traditional polymers (which are typically used in everyday composites) while providing strength and manufacturability are not sustainable long term—they end up as waste and do not break down in the environment. We need to figure out ways to improve this by developing biobased materials that decompose under certain conditions. At the same time, we need materials that can address structural demands and environmental stability.”
“Flexibility is an important component for many new applications,” Prasad continued. “We want bulletproof armor, for instance, that is thin but is also light, flexible and ideally has sensing capabilities. The plants are flexible yet strong enough to survive winds and can sense environmental stressors, such as drought and frost. Furthermore, plants have the amazing capability to adapt to such stressors by signaling cells to modify their structure and growth.
“Learning how plants manage these capabilities and provide these different types of functionality is knowledge we can apply to designing composites for a whole range of applications,” she said.
Through the CAREER award, Prasad and two graduate students will analyze sunflowers and soybeans to gain a better understanding about the different types of materials in the plant cell walls and how those materials interact to provide desirable properties through different growth stages.
“For instance, the cellulose fibers are interacting within a pectin matrix. How does the load transfer happen at an early stage of growth?” Prasad said.
The funding will also support multiple undergraduate student projects each school year for the duration of the grant. As adviser of the university’s Biomedical Engineering Society, Prasad also hopes to recruit more students interested in applied material research to prepare the next generation of workforce for addressing future challenges.
Prasad will also work with the South Dakota Discovery Center in Pierre to create culturally sensitive lesson plans to increase interest in biomaterials and plant-based research among rural and Native American students. The center will distribute the lessons to libraries and schools in the state both in-person and through virtual tools, such as Facebook live and the South Dakota Education portal. The education portal was created through NSF support for Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, commonly called EPSCoR, and connects research to classrooms.
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