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Lu earns NSF faculty early CAREER award

Susan McKenna
1/26/2016 2:58:00 PM

Assistant Professor Ting Lu studies bacteria, and recently he earned a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to further his research on bacterial communities, which are important to the environment, agriculture, and human health.

Lu, on the faculty of the Department of Bioengineering and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is interested in the design, construction and exploitation of bacterial gene regulatory networks for cellular functionality programming. The NSF CAREER award provides Lu with more than $700,000 over five years to support his research in uncovering the design principles of bacterial communities such as biofilms (the aggregates of microorganisms), which are everywhere.

“Despite significant advances over decades of research, our understanding and predictive capability for the organization of competing communities remains limited,” Lu said. “It is fundamentally important to determine how the key molecular traits of (bacterial) competition — including its scale, variability and cost — collectively control the assembly of bacteria into complex spatiotemporal structures.”

Lu plans to advance his work by employing an interdisciplinary approach that combines experimental synthetic biology with advanced mathematical modeling. Specifically, he will use engineered E. coli as controllable model systems for systematic experimental examination. In parallel, he will use his expertise in mathematical analysis and computational modeling to construct a biophysical platform for developing a theory of bacterial competition.

In addition to the proposed research, Lu and his research group plan to conduct a series of education activities for high school and undergraduate students, particularly females and underrepresented students. The team hopes to train next-generation students in interdisciplinary sciences.

The NSF's CAREER program is a foundation-wide activity that offers prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their respective organizations.

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