Lu chosen for prestigious Sloan fellowship

For the fourth year in a row, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has awarded one of Tech’s faculty the Sloan Research Fellowship. With 118 granted annually, the two-year fellowship seeks to support and recognize early-career scientists and scholars who show promise in becoming frontrunners in their field of research. This year’s recipient is Hang Lu, assistant professor in the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Along with the prestige that goes along with winning this award, the fellowship includes a $50,000 grant. Lu was awarded the fellowship for her work in the field of neuroscience.

One of the major benefits of the Sloan Research Fellowship is the flexibility it provides for the use of the grant money. Unlike other grants, there are very few strings attached to the way that the fellowship money can be spent. This allows the recipient to undertake a higher risk project that may otherwise not be funded through traditional means, such as the National Science Foundation.

“This fellowship will allow me to get the preliminary data to support any out-of-the box ideas that I have and secure funding from other agencies,” Lu said. The Sloan Foundation states that the funds granted through the award may be used for such purposes as research equipment, travel, training or any activity related to the recipient’s research.

Lu’s research involves coming up with the tools necessary to observe and analyze neural systems. More specifically, her research group engineers bio micro-electro-mechanical systems and microfluidic devices to come up with solutions to problems in neuroscience that are difficult to solve using conventional methods.

As part of her research, Lu and her group studies nematodes, small animals invisible to the naked eye. Still, they contain 302 neurons and have an excellent sense of smell, even better than that of humans. Lu and her team attempt to use novel engineering methods to fabricate microfluidic chips to analyze neural systems, a unique approach in a field dominated by mainly scientists.

These devices are especially useful in neuroscience, because they can be shrunk down to the scale of typical biological systems. In addition, unique phenomena at the micro and nano-scale can be exploited by these devices to measure and analyze those systems. These chips are fabricated using conventional means, much like the method used to fabricate computer chips.

Lu highlighted the increasing acceptance of engineering approaches in the biological community. “It’s really nice to see that a bunch of engineers can get science grants to do science,” she said Lu hopes that her fellowship will encourage other engineers and physical scientists to jump in and take more qualitative approaches to biological problems.

“People are starting to value engineering or quantitative approaches to biological sciences, as opposed to hypothesis-drive approaches, which has been the norm for the past few decades,” she said.

Lu went on to highlight several advantages that her engineering background provides in her research field. Since engineers are willing to make approximations, they can simplify the problem and explore various dimensions of a problem simultaneously. This mode of inquiry is different compared to the approach used by traditional biologists. Engineers also use quantitative information differently.

“As an engineer, we like to control the input and see how things respond, while biologists observe systems more thoroughly,” she said.

Lu also noted some of the drawbacks of attacking problems with an engineering mindset. Engineers can sometimes oversimplify problems, leading to unusable or inapplicable solutions. Lu said that biologists are able to grasp more complex systems and understand more details involved in processes. She added that engineers could benefit from emulating the curiosity of scientists.

Since the Sloan Research Fellowship has been awarded, 27 of Tech’s faculty have be granted the fellowship.