BY MIKE WILLIAMS
Rice News staff
How molecules get from here to there in various environments is a fundamental question Rice University chemist Christy Landes would love to answer. And she will get the chance to do so with the help of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has awarded her a prestigious CAREER grant.
Landes, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator and an assistant professor of chemistry, earned the award that goes to young scientists who are expected to become leaders in their fields.
With her CAREER funding, Landes and her group will develop state-of-the-art single-molecule spectroscopic techniques to help researchers understand and control the transport of molecules across charged polymer membranes, particularly at water/membrane interfaces. The work, an aspect of which was detailed in a paper earlier this year in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, has implications for energy and water purification applications.
It’s also a departure from the biomolecular research for which she’s already known. Landes imaged protein-binding processes using a unique combination of spectroscopy and wavelets, a mathematics tool developed at Rice, for a project detailed earlier this year in a Nature Chemical Biology paper. That was an advance for researchers studying memory, learning and the roots of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and stroke.
“I’m interested in lots of things, and I like my students to be learning in an interdisciplinary environment,” she said, explaining her choice to seek CAREER funding for the materials project instead.
“At first glance, they couldn’t be more opposite from each other — I had (NSF) program officers ask me, ‘Aren’t you a biophysicist?’ — but to me, they’re the same thing,” Landes said. “I’m interested in how heterogeneity can drive function, and there are examples of that in both materials and in biology.”
Studying how molecular-scale particles maneuver around interfaces is just as interesting to bioengineers looking at ion transport through cell membranes as it is to materials scientists eyeing polymer brushes for adhesives or lubricants. “There’s a set of problems I want to look at, but the material can be anything. So I couldn’t have been more relieved when I got my CAREER on this project, because it says that all of my risk has been rewarded,” she said.
In the Physical Chemistry Letters paper, Landes said her former graduate student and Rice alumna Carmen Reznik ’11, now at Shell, “was able to exploit something that’s normally bad in confocal imaging to allow us to see 3-D motion inside polymer brushes. The reviewers of the CAREER proposal went on about the novelty and utility and how hard it was to do that.
“I couldn’t be more pleased now that this has all come together,” Landes said. “And the truth is, I’m going to apply what we’ve learned how to do with these synthetic membranes in my biological systems. So it really is all related.”
The project, she said, is perfectly suited for study at Rice as it involves chemistry, physics, materials science, environmental science and applied mathematics. “If we only look in our own immediate fields, we discount the entire world of possible ways to look at systems and solve problems,” Landes said. “It’s important to the future that we be flexible and grab things that we need from other fields.”
The NSF grants only about 400 CAREER awards each year. Rice scientists have now earned six since the start of 2011. Along with Landes, CAREER awards went to Adilet Imambekov, assistant professor of physics and astronomy; Jamie Padgett, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering; Lin Zhong, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; Jeffrey Jacot, assistant professor of bioengineering; and Zachary Ball, assistant professor of chemistry.