Chemical engineer, animal scientist win 2022 Schwartz awards

Two faculty members – studying topics ranging from reproductive performance in dairy cows to the introduction of living organisms into material design – are winners of 2022 Schwartz Research Funds for Women and Other Underrepresented Faculty in the Life Sciences.

Rong Yang

Yi Athena Ren

Rong Yang, assistant professor in the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the College of Engineering, and Yi Athena Ren, assistant professor of Animal Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, each received a $25,000 award.

The funds are made possible through support from Joan Poyner Schwartz ’65 and Ronald H. Schwartz ’65, who were both chemistry majors in the College of Arts and Sciences. They had long careers at the National Institutes of Health with legacies of promoting the work and careers of women in the life sciences.

“We are grateful for the Schwartzes’ continued commitment to supporting women and underrepresented faculty conducting innovative research,” said Yael Levitte, associate vice provost for faculty development and diversity. “The funds help recipients acquire preliminary data and launch new research directions.”  

Yang will use her funds to collect data on how to keep living organisms, such as microbes, alive while they are implanted into engineered materials. The research could help create a “smart” bandage – where living cells would continuously synthesize and secrete antimicrobial compounds into a wound. Yang said the potential applications for her research are endless.

“We are used to materials being concrete or steel; these dead, cold, inactive things with a limited lifetime,” Yang said. “If we need a new function – we have to buy a new one. But if this is successful, we can have materials that repair themselves; they can grow and develop new functions or simply develop a new shape.”

Maintaining cell viability under extreme and unpredictable conditions is a key challenge in creating something such as a living bandage. To do this, cells need to be encapsulated in a scaffolding, like a jacket, to protect them. Yang’s research leverages a solvent-free, room-temperature polymerization technique to rapidly grow scaffolds directly from the surface of cells, ensuring microbe viability.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this research at all without the Schwartz award, because it’s so high risk – but high reward,” Yang said.

Ren will use her award to identify epigenetic markers that have the potential to predict reproductive performance in dairy cows. This research could have a big impact on the dairy industry because more than half of current breeding efforts fail to result in the live birth of a calf.

Epigenetics is a layer of regulation for biological traits that often depends on the underlying genetic features, but also has its own system of operation. Epigenetic markers can be established early in life and stay stable for years - such markers with a high level of variation between individuals, coupled with machine learning, were applied recently to predict schizophrenia in humans.

“It’s not just limited to reproduction,” Ren said. “Our findings could also be used to predict other biological traits in dairy cattle, and our approach can be applied to other domestic animals, such as beef cattle. I appreciate the support from the Schwartz award because it enables us to jump-start this line of research in agricultural animal biology.”

In addition, Heather Huson, associate professor of animal science in CALS and Nilay Yapici, assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior and Nancy and Peter Meinig Family Investigator in the Life Sciences in A&S, each received a $2,250 grant to support conference travel.

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Becka Bowyer