Rong Fan Receives 2014 NSF CAREER Award


A prestigious research award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will help biomedical engineer Rong Fan create a microchip that can simultaneously measure a single cell’s DNA, RNA, protein signature, and cellular function. 

Fan, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has been selected to receive a 2014 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for his project, “Revisiting the Central Dogma at the Genome Scale and in Single Cells.” The CAREER Award, which provides five years of funding to researchers who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars, is the NSF’s most prestigious award for junior faculty.

Rong Fan in his lab

Fan’s research focuses on developing microtechnology for single-cell, genome-scale analysis that integrates the principles of systems biology—a field of study that holistically examines the components of a biological system and how they interact with one another. His previous inventions have sought to better understand complex human diseases, especially the interactions between cancer cells and the immune system. For example, one of his devices demonstrated that not all immune cells that respond to tumors are the same specific cell type; the discovery better illuminates how patients respond to a particular type of cancer treatment.

“Single cell analysis is the new forefront of biomedical research,” says Fan, “but the major challenge is the lack of breakthrough technologies to handle and process single cells such that the genetic, epigenetic, or proteomic information can be obtained at the single cell level with high coverage and accuracy. So it is a field where engineering can make major contributions.”

With the 2014 CAREER Award, Fan plans to develop a microfluidic processor that can examine the flow of genetic information in a single cell simultaneously for genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic, and phenotypic parameters. He hopes to understand how a cell regulates the expression of genes at the whole genome scale to produce a diverse range of cell types and functions, a question that is central to modern biology. Such analysis is critical to fully addressing a range of fundamental biological questions such as embryonic development, tumor development, and immune diversity.