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Engineering professor earns prestigious NSF Early Career Development grant

Dr. Niel Crews, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Louisiana Tech University and a member of Tech’s Institute for Micromanufacturing, has been awarded an Early Career Development grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his proposal, “Thermal Gradient Microflow Calorimetry using Anisotropic Temperature Sensors.”

The five-year $400,000 award will help Crews expand the scope of his research program and also integrate his research with a series of educational and outreach activities that will involve students from the high-school to doctoral levels.

“Niel’s work with microfluidics and its biomedical applications is a great example of our interdisciplinary research culture, and provides a platform for innovative solutions in the future,” said Dr. Randy Null, director of the Institute for Micromanufacturing and Entergy/Cordaro Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering.

The portable genetic analysis system developed under the leadership of Dr. Niel Crews can perform the equivalent of a day-long medical laboratory test within 30 minutes.

Early Career Development or “CAREER” grants are among the most prestigious grants awarded by the National Science Foundation to support the careers of young academic researchers and help them become national leaders in research and education.  Including Crews, six Louisiana Tech engineering researchers have received CAREER awards so far with five of them having an association with the Institute for Micromanufacturing.

In his research program, Crews will explore a new, fast, and highly sensitive method for measuring the extremely small amounts of heat released when molecules react.  The technique makes use of microfluidics, which is the area of science that studies how fluids behave when confined to spaces that are many times smaller than the thickness of human hair.

Crews believes that a hand-held and self-contained device based on his technology would revolutionize many fields, such as pharmaceuticals, molecular biology, and materials science.  A specific application which is already being studied by Crews is the rapid genetic analysis using a portable device, greatly reducing the time and the cost for obtaining medical information.

“I am delighted to learn of Dr. Crews’ award,” said Dr. Eric Guilbeau, professor and director of Biomedical Engineering and director of Louisiana Tech’s Center for Biomedical Engineering and Rehabilitation Science.  “He is an outstanding researcher who is applying fundamental engineering and biological principles to develop exciting new biotechnologies with high economic development potential.  His research is an excellent example of what an investment in highly qualified faculty members and outstanding research infrastructure can mean for higher education in the State of Louisiana.”

Significant and innovative education and outreach activities are integral components of Early Career Development grants.  In Crews’ case, these include an ongoing collaboration with Louisiana Tech’s Science and Technology Center (SciTEC).  As part of this work, Crews will adapt many activities of existing SciTEC summer camp programs into a “travelling” format.  In this way, SciTEC will potentially be able to bring elements of their award-winning summer programs to outlying parishes in the region.

This NSF grant will also support a continuation of Crews’ collaboration with Dr. Danny Hubbard of Grambling State University.  Their mutual effort is aimed toward increasing the undergraduate research opportunities at Grambling State in high-tech fields, particularly those closely aligned with the research focus of Louisiana Tech’s Institute for Micromanufacturing.

Written by Catherine Fraser – cfraser@latech.edu