Hi, I am Dell Zimmerman, a senior in Chemical Engineering from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). Last year, I participated in the Interdisciplinary Computational Biology (iCompBio) REU program at UTC, conducting research on biomimetic hydrogels for drug delivery applications under the mentorship of Dr. Soubantika Palchoudhury. I have recently won the Barry C. Goldwater Scholarship for my research proposal on the work I conducted at my REU program. I had an exciting research experience at my REU program and I learned about designing new experiments, computational biology techniques using Python and R, and how to present and write about my research findings. I have presented my research results at the AIChE Regional Conference (Orlando), NanoBio Summit (Atlanta), and the Technology Symposium at UTC over the past year. I was also accepted to present my research findings at the 2020 National Conference on Undergraduate Research (Bozeman, MT) and the 2020 Southern Regional Honors Council Conference (Birmingham, AL). I won the first place in poster competition at the NanoBio Summit along with my graduate student mentor, Armel Boutchuen. Over the past year, I have also published my research as a co-author in two journal articles in the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology and the Journal of Nanomaterials.
My research problem focused on understanding the structure-property relations of poly(2-hydroxyethylmethacrylate) (pHEMA) hydrogels through synergistic material characterization and computational biology approaches. Hydrogels are soft polymeric materials made of two or more hydrophilic monomers that can absorb large quantities of water within their three-dimensional interpenetrating network. A cross-link molecule is used to form the network between the monomers. A unique advantage of hydrogels in designing biomimetic structures is their composition and pH-dependent swelling behavior, biocompatibility, and structural flexibility. For example, I looked at optimizing the synthetic parameters for pHEMA hydrogels such as water content and ratio of monomers to realize materials with varying degrees of swelling, porosity, and softness. I found that the quantity of water used during synthesis played a major role in structural flexibility of the gels. Image 1 shows a few representative pHEMA gels formed with different quantities of de-ionized water.
Image 1: pHEMA hydrogels synthesized with varying quantity of water.
I applied a multi-modal material characterization approach using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) with energy dispersive x-ray unit, Fourier Transform infrared spectroscopy, and ultraviolet visible spectroscopy to investigate the surface features, texture, and surface chemical bonds of the gels. Image 2 shows the SEM in my lab that I used for my REU program. I was also able to embed iron oxide nanoparticles within the pHEMA hydrogels and design soft biomimetic flow channels with the gels to investigate flow of nanoparticle drugs.
I would like to acknowledge Dr. Hong Qin, Dr. Palchoudhury, and the NSF iCompBio NSF-REU program at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga for a highly engaging and interdisciplinary scientific research training and a stimulating experience during the summer.
Image 2: Scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive x-ray.