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NSF grants Univ. of Puerto Rico professor $300K for biological sensor tech

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $300,000 grant to Claribel Acevedo-Vélez, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering (INQU) at the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) Mayagüez campus, known as RUM in Spanish. The grant will fund the development of sensors that detect environmental and biological contaminants, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The grant is part of the NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Research Fellows Program, which supports professors at the beginning of their teaching careers and their research projects. The program facilitates collaborative research and visits to partner institutions, allowing awardees to learn new techniques, develop collaborations, access unique equipment and take their research in transformative directions.

“It is an honor and a source of pride to be recognized for the quality of the research we carry out at the campus and all the contributions we can make to science, both locally and nationally,” said Acevedo-Vélez. “With these funds, we also support the education efforts at the institution. As an educator and graduate of the UPR RUM, I am very honored to receive this important grant. When I was an undergraduate student here in the Department of Chemical Engineering, I also had a lot of benefits as part of these types of projects and research centers. Now I see this platform as a way to give back what I received, share my experiences and allow our students to now have those same opportunities.”

Acevedo-Vélez explained that the sensors use liquid crystals, similar to those in mobile phone and computer screens, to detect various contaminants. 

“Due to their optical properties, when liquid crystals are exposed to these contaminants, we can observe a change in color and configuration that indicates the presence of the contaminant in the medium. This is the detection method,” Acevedo-Vélez said.

She added that the goal is for these sensors to be used in pharmaceutical production or cell therapy.

“The idea here is that there are different types of contaminants, such as fungi and bacteria, like mycoplasma, that can contaminate that product. Through the development of these technologies, we seek faster and more efficient ways to determine or detect these contaminants to ensure the quality of the final product,” Acevedo-Vélez said.

Doctoral student María Karla Oñate is collaborating on the research, and both will work at RUM and in Wisconsin with David Lynn and Sean Palecek from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

UPR RUM Chancellor Agustín Rullán-Toro praised the achievement as a testament to the institution’s quality research.

“All of this has a series of precedents that happen in a chain,” the chancellor said. “Dr. Acevedo-Vélez is a graduate of the Mayagüez Campus. From the beginning, she was involved in the Puerto Rico Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) proposal in which her Department of Chemical Engineering participated with other institutions, particularly with the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Then, she came to work with us, and we became partners in another center, which is the Center for Manufacturing Cell Technologies (CMAT). Through that center, we are again within this circle of important players. Here we coincide with Georgia Tech, which is a leader in that group, but there is also the University of Wisconsin in Madison.” 

Rullán-Toro also emphasized the positive impact of Acevedo-Vélez’s work and its influence within the research community.

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