Cristina Rodriguez and Lea Winter Win Beckman Award

Professors Cristina Rodriguez in biomedical engineering and Lea Winter in chemical and environmental engineering have each been awarded the Beckman Young Investigator Award.

The Beckman Young Investigator Program provides research support to the most promising young faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences, particularly to foster the invention of methods, instruments and materials that will open up new avenues of research in science. Projects are normally funded for a period of four years. Grants are in the range of $600,000 over the term of the project. Rodriguez and Winter are two of the 10 researchers chosen nationally for the award this year. 

Cristina Rodríguez, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, wants to develop new microscopic imaging technology to better study information processing in the central nervous system. The key is in the technology’s unprecedented subcellular image quality from deep tissue layers, where essential neuronal processes take place. This clarity will make it possible to better understand the patterns of communication between neurons in real time. 

“Imaging through tissues is very hard - it's like trying to see through a wet windshield,” Rodríguez said. “You can get a blurry image, but you can't really see well what's on the other side, and you can’t really visualize small structures like subcellular features.”

This, she says, is because tissues introduce optical aberrations, which severely distort images. This is especially an issue when researchers need an image deep into tissues to look at biological phenomena in their native context - for instance, when they’re doing in vivo brain imaging. 

Rodríguez plans to develop the new imaging platform from a combination of cutting-edge technologies. One of these is what’s known as “3-photon imaging,” a type of microscopy that uses fluorescence to scan deeper in tissue. It also uses a first-of-a-kind type of adaptive optics, a technology originally developed for Earth-based telescopes, used for getting clearer images of stars.

Aiming this technology not toward deep space, but at very small features such as neuronal cell bodies and synaptic structures, Rodríguez says, will bring new insights about cell-to-cell communication in the brain and spinal cord of neurobiological model organisms such as rodents.

“If you want an image deep into the brain for staring things like, how we process memories, or how we learn, we can't do that now because the tissues introduce aberrations,” she said. “But we can see them if we use adaptive optics. It's like the stars that we can't resolve otherwise.”

Lea Winter’s project aims to develop a new method of producing ammonia for fertilizer that addresses two long-standing challenges: Reducing carbon emissions, and increasing global access to fertilizer.

Winter, assistant professor of chemical & environmental engineering, notes that more than half of the world’s food is currently grown using ammonia-based fertilizers, but the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to power energy-intensive ammonia synthesis processes result in enormous carbon emissions. Making the situation even more problematic, the intensive conditions have limited ammonia production to a small number of large-scale, centralized facilities. That means that supply chain disruptions lead to chronic fertilizer shortages and food insecurity in much of Africa and parts of Asia. 

“To solve these issues, we will invent a new process to make ammonia from air, water, and renewable energy using lightning-like plasma to excite nitrogen from the air so that it can efficiently combine with water,” Winter said. “This small-scale, easy-to-install system would provide a new paradigm for producing ammonia at room temperature and pressure, increasing global fertilizer access while mitigating climate impacts.”

This new plasma-electrochemical process would provide an efficient form of low-temperature, electrified ammonia synthesis from air and water with the potential to mitigate the enormous climate impacts of conventional fertilizer synthesis. This, in turn, would enable decentralized fertilizer production in remote locations facing food insecurity.

Moreover, this process and the underlying concepts of this project could revolutionize the field of electrochemistry and provide a new paradigm for synthesizing fertilizer, fuels, and chemicals from renewable energy and sustainable materials.

The project will also advance Winter’s long-term research goals of pioneering electrified and circularized processes for manufacturing critical chemicals, with the result of decarbonizing the chemical industry, circularizing resource economies, and increasing global equity of access to basic commodities.