Edmund F. Palermo, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, has been awarded a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Materials Research Biomaterials Program. He will use the five-year, $539,177 award to study “Biomimetic Macromolecules at the Materials-Microbe Interface.” The CAREER Award is given to faculty members near the beginning of their academic careers and is one of the most competitive awards given by the NSF, placing emphasis on high-quality research and novel educational initiatives.
Palermo’s research, which is at the intersection of materials science and biotechnology, focuses on the development of materials to combat infectious pathogens, inhibit biofilm formation, and act as components in new medical diagnostic tools. The overarching goal of Palermo’s research program is to capture the essential design features of naturally occurring biological materials in order to design novel man-made materials, a process known as “biomimicry.” Palermo says, “The complexity and sophistication of biological materials design in Nature has always been the envy of humankind. Today, materials scientists can leverage these design principles – from the macroscopic down to the molecular level – and apply them to the remarkably diverse pallet of synthetic materials. The ultimate goal is to vastly broaden our scope of capabilities in a broad range of high-performance technologies.”
The NSF award will support research designed to enable human control over the interaction between plastics and harmful bacteria in order to create surface coatings that kill germs on contact and prevent the accumulation of harmful biofilms on surfaces. Applications of these new materials could include self-cleaning ship hull coatings to reduce drag, pipe-flow inner linings to prevent biologically induced corrosion, and infection-preventing catheter devices for use in hospitals.
Student involvement, both graduate and undergraduate, in the research is an integral part of the grant. Palermo also has created a program for middle and high school students to visit campus, learn concepts in biology and materials science, and share their knowledge on social media.
Palermo joined the Rensselaer faculty in 2014, following a postdoctoral research appointment at the University of Michigan. He earned his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering at Cornell University and his Ph.D. in Macromolecular Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. He was a postdoctoral researcher in the Chemistry Department, also at Michigan, before coming to Rensselaer.
In 2016, Palermo was selected for a 3M Nontenured Faculty Award for his research project “Bioresponsive Polymers as Antifouling Coatings.” Also in 2016, he received an NSF Division of Chemistry Macromolecular, Supramolecular and Nanochemistry grant for “Photochromic Switching for Nanostructured Polymer Gels,” in collaboration with Chaitanya Ullal, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer. Palermo’s work has also been supported by the Army Research Office.