• What do you Do?
    I teach chemical engineering undergraduate and graduate students and I do research in the area of polymeric materials for medical applications
  • What did you study?
    B.Tech, Chemical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, India Ph.D. (Chemical Engineering) Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN
  • Your Day At Work?
    In addition to my normal teaching activities (one or two chemical engineering classes a semester), the rest of my time is usually spent on research activities. I direct a group of undergraduate and graduate students on various research projects. The general theme of my research has been to make new polymeric materials or to modify existing polymeric materials to make them suitable for controlled drug release or for tissue engineering applications. So these involve projects like developing patterned biodegradable polymers to help nerve regeneration and to make new environmentally sensitive smart polymers for drug release. I am also a Program Director of the Materials Chemistry and Biomolecular Materials program at Ames Laboratory, a Department of Energy Laboratory in Ames, IA. So part of my time is spent in administration.
  • Tell us more about your research?

    Surya Mallapragada believes in the power and potential of bio- and bio-inspired materials to improve human health.

    She’s been researching the materials and how they can solve biomedical problems for nearly two decades. And there are good reasons for sticking with the studies.

    “There’s a lot of potential,” said Mallapragada, Iowa State University’s inaugural Carol Vohs Johnson Chair (“Carol’s Chair”) in Chemical and Biological Engineering, a professor of materials science and engineering and an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory. “There’s a lot of value these materials can add, but the interactions of these materials with biology aren’t well understood. I think we’re doing a better job of gaining that understanding.”

    What, exactly, can these materials do for people?

    “A big area is tissue engineering,” she said. “That could include creating artificial organs and tissue, or using these materials to induce cell tissue growth. We could build scaffolds to promote skin growth, or materials for cartilage, bone or hip joints. There are many different opportunities.”

    Researchers are also using the bio- and bio-inspired materials in new vaccine technologies. Mallapragada, in fact, is a research partner of Iowa State’s Nanovaccine Initiative, a bench-to-bedside research collaboration launched in 2013 with a three-year, $1.2 million grant from Iowa State’s Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research.

    All those biomedical possibilities are keeping Mallapragada’s research group busy. They’re developing:

    • Smart polymers that have charge and gel-forming characteristics that make them ideal for delivering suicide genes to cancer cells.
    • Nanoscale, polymer devices that provide sustained delivery of single-dose vaccines.
    • Polymers added to vaccines as adjuvants that enhance the response to sub-unit vaccines based on proteins, DNA or other parts of a virus.
    • Hybrid materials that combine the lab’s hydrogels with other biodegradable nanoparticle platforms developed in the Nanovaccine Initiative to improve the effectiveness of vaccines.
    • Nanocomposite materials that can be used in hip implants or cartilage repair.
    • Biodegradable polymer substrates featuring tiny patterns and channels that help nerves to bridge gaps and regenerate.

    The research projects have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Energy.

    Mallapragada said many of the projects are inspired by the structures and materials found in nature, such as the chains of magnetic nanocrystals found in the tissues of many species.

    “Nature assembles these beautifully,” she said of the nanocrystals. “Our synthetic polymers are moving closer to that.”

    Additional progress could open the door to materials produced under mild temperatures and conditions; materials produced with greater control of size, shape, chemistry and crystal structure; and materials engineered for highly specific applications in medicine, sensors, ceramics and other fields.

    “Figuring out how to do that is terribly powerful,” Mallapragada said. “Nature makes proteins with 20 or so amino acids as building blocks in specific positions. With synthetic polymers, we have two to three building blocks that we can reliably reproduce in specific locations. If we can achieve the level of control seen in nature, imagine all the things we could do.”

  • What do you love about your job?
    Engineering involves a lot of problem-solving. So that is the fun and challenge of being an engineer.
  • Proud Moments?
    My research work in drug delivery and tissue engineering, and the work would not have been possible without my talented students.
  • Challenges?
    I was lucky in the fact that I picked chemical engineering and it turned out to be the right choice for me. However, my first semester at college was a rude shock – being away from home for the first time, being in a relatively male-dominated field (at least when I went to school), etc. But things are improving now, at least in chemical engineering. There are a lot more female chemical engineers than there were in the past. We are still not at the 50 percent mark yet.
  • Your Family?
    I have a very close relationship with my parents and they have been extremely supportive and encouraging all my life and made me into the person I am. My husband also has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering (we met in graduate school) and he teaches in the same department at Iowa State. So we are colleagues at home and at work. It is great to have a spouse who understands what you do and who you can communicate with about your work. My work is certainly a huge part of my life, so it is important to me to have a life partner who can understand what I am talking about.
  • Dreams and Goals
    My short-term goals are to establish myself as a strong researcher in the biomaterials area. My long-term goals are to be recognized as a leader in my research field and to help percolate the research to the graduate and undergraduate teaching that I do. I also have lots of undergraduate (and even a few high school students) involved in my research.
  • Inspiration
    My parents – especially my father. He always encouraged my early interest in chemistry and has been very supportive throughout.
  • Want to be an Engineer?
    Believe in yourself.
  • Any other stories or comments you would like to share with EngineerGirl visitors?
    My long-term goals are to be recognized as a leader in my research field and to help percolate the research to the graduate and undergraduate teaching that I do.