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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Patrick Underhill Receives NSF CAREER Award

Wed, 2010-06-02 10:00 -- Anonymous

June 2, 2010

Young Faculty Researcher To Investigate Group Behavior of Bacteria

Patrick Underhill, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has won a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Underhill will use the five-year, $400,000 award to further his research into how transport phenomena affect biological processes. He will investigate how interactions and communication between bacteria lead to a group response that is very different than if the bacteria acted as individuals.

“We congratulate Dr. Underhill for being selected to receive the NSF CAREER Award. These grants are highly competitive and reserved for the most promising and innovative young faculty researchers,” said David Rosowsky, dean of the School of Engineering at Rensselaer. “Patrick has an exceptional ability to attack modern biological problems by applying fundamental principles of fluid mechanics and chemical engineering science. I expect many exciting and important discoveries to result from his interdisciplinary research, which skillfully combines state-of-the-art theory and modeling with experiments.

“Dr. Underhill joins a growing number of recent CAREER recipients in the School of Engineering and across the Institute, further evidence of the outstanding faculty we have been able to recruit to Rensselaer. We are tremendously proud of Patrick for this accomplishment and look forward to watching his career progress in the coming years,” Rosowsky said.

Underhill is the seventh Rensselaer faculty member in the past year to receive an NSF CAREER Award.

With his CAREER project, titled “Multiscale Modeling of Collective Behavior of Bacteria,” Underhill will tackle the challenge of modeling the complex behaviors of large groups of bacteria. When bacteria are present in high concentrations, they often demonstrate interesting collective behaviors, and Underhill is concerned with modeling and developing theory of these behaviors. One important interaction occurs when a bacterium moves through a liquid, disturbing the fluid as it moves. The other bacteria nearby are affected by this change in fluid flow. Models that account for this hydrodynamic interaction in bacterial groups can explain some experimental observations of bacteria at high concentrations.

By building a theoretical framework and robust computer simulation methods, Underhill seeks to gain fundamental insights into the natural occurrences of bacterial populations, such as formation of biofilms or infections, and also to give researchers the necessary tools to design novel bacterial systems. The award includes the development of educational tools for the interactive exploration of the role of fluid mechanics in the behavior of small microorganisms.

The CAREER Award is given to faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers and is one of NSF’s most competitive awards, placing emphasis on high-quality research and novel education initiatives.

Underhill joined the Rensselaer faculty in August 2008 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received two bachelor’s degrees, in chemical engineering and physics, from Washington University, and went on to earn his doctoral degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161
E-mail: mullam@rpi.edu