Ebong Receives NSF CAREER Award
Fighting Cardiovascular Disease
Chemical Engineering Assistant Professor Eno Ebong realized early on that her interest in fluid and how it flows through pipes could be applied to studying blood vessels and disease. She also discovered that she had a passion for mentoring and a commitment to building a diverse STEM workforce.
Her twin interests mesh seamlessly with her current research project, which recently earned her the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award. Ebong and her team are studying endothelial cells that line blood vessels to better understand how the blood flow environment and stiffness of the underlying tissue contribute to cardiovascular disease risk.
“Exploring the endothelial cell response to the combined stimuli of blood flow and the tissue the cells sit on is going to be our main focus,” she says. “It’s something that hasn’t been looked at before.”
Endothelial cells were primarily studied in the context of response to blood flow; however, cells exist on different tissue surfaces, depending on health or disease conditions. They navigate the blood flow environment and different surfaces much like runners who navigate wind forces and a variety of surfaces. “A runner’s pace depends on wind speed and direction along with the surface they’re running on,” Ebong says. “A more fit athlete might be able to navigate these environments differently, and we expect to find cells behave the same way.”
Ebong believes the research results could contribute to improved diagnostics, preventative measures and treatment. “A lot of time and financial resources have been dedicated to understanding cardiovascular disease,” she says, “but more development is needed, making our work extremely important.” Moreover, the project is personal for her. “Many people are affected by blood vessel diseases, especially in communities of color,” she says. “I’m familiar with cardiovascular disease in my family, so I am doing something to contribute to solving this problem.”
A culture of mentoring
As part of the NSF CAREER Award, research is closely integrated with STEM education and outreach activities designed to expand interest among students at all levels and to broaden the diversity of the STEM workforce to bring in varied perspectives that will spark innovation. Underpinning the focus on nurturing interest in STEM is an active mentoring culture, which Ebong sees as part of her role as an educator. “Everyone on my team serves as a mentor on this project.”
Demonstrating productivity is also a requirement for all participating students, from elementary through grad school. “At every level, there is something to be done,” says Ebong, whether that’s publishing a peer-reviewed paper, presenting at a scientific conference, applying for funding, developing a hypothesis for a science project, or participating in a precollegiate science fair. “It’s all about getting familiar with the cycle of a research project.”
Abstract Source: NSF
Fluid (blood) and solid (blood vessel wall) forces are both part of the natural mechanical environment of blood vessels and determine blood vessel function. Changes in the properties of blood vessels — often due to age or disease – can influence the activity of the cells that line the blood vessels (endothelial cells), which can subsequently respond and further affect the properties of the vessel. This Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) research project will test a two-tier hypothesis to further understand this interaction. First, it is hypothesized that the fluid and solid forces work together to regulate behavior of the endothelial cells that line the blood vessel wall. These cells detect these forces, and, in response, guide blood vessel function to maintain health. Second, it is hypothesized that the biological response to force by the endothelial cells (a process called mechanobiology) occurs via the glycocalyx, which is a sugar layer that is anchored to and coats endothelial cells. This CAREER research project will address a critical gap in knowledge about how these vascular lining cells respond to their mechanical environment, a knowledge gap which has limited the success of vascular disease prevention and treatment. New knowledge will make it possible to engineer innovative approaches to control endothelial cell mechanobiology and transform how we repair or regenerate endothelial cell function in blood vessels. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and outreach activities will be integrated with the research in a manner that will positively impact both mechanobiology research and the STEM workforce. General and underrepresented minority populations of K -12, undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students will be engaged and trained through experiential learning activities — ranging from hands on challenges for K-3 students to science fair projects to dissertations — which will be catalyzed by the CAREER research project. The principal investigator will serve as an underrepresented minority coach, and opportunities will also be provided for older students to mentor younger students. This goal of the educational portion of this project is to, in the near future, expand STEM education at all levels and, in the long-term future, expand the diversity of the STEM workforce to enhance innovation.
The overall research goal of this project is to define the endothelial cell and glycocalyx mechanisms of blood vessel regulation through mechanobiology. Three objectives have been established. First, to characterize the architecture of the glycocalyx over a range of combined fluid-solid mechanical stimuli. Second, to link the mechanically-controlled architecture of the glycocalyx to the activation of both protagonist and antagonist molecular mechanisms that drive the response of endothelial cells. And finally, to clarify the extent to which cooperative mechanical, glycocalyx, and molecular stimuli evoke a response within the endothelial cells that impacts blood vessel function. The overall educational objective of this CAREER proposal is to coach and champion culturally diverse students to broaden the future workforce, leverage new perspectives, and enhance endothelial cell mechanobiology research innovation. This will be approached by building an inclusive STEM community that includes research experiences, mentoring, and financial support for graduate, undergraduate, and high school students — with special emphasis on students from underrepresented groups — who then reach back to K-8 students to excite them about STEM.
This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.