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Ellis Meng Wins NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award

February 27, 2006 —
Ellis Meng, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and an expert in bioMEMS fabrication, has won a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

The five-year, $400,000 award will support her research to develop novel microfabricated neural interfaces that may one day help to repair damage and restore lost functions in people who have suffered central nervous system injuries.  

Ellis Meng

The award, one of the National Science Foundation’s highest honors for young faculty members, recognizes and supports the early career development activities of “teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.”  Awardees are selected on the basis of “creative career-development plans that effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of the university.” 

Meng’s research involves developing biocompatible polymer microsystems that can seamlessly communicate and interact with the body’s natural chemical and electrical pathways. These MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) devices integrate both microelectrodes and microfluidics on a single platform and facilitate multi-channel, multi-modality flows in both directions, which has never been accomplished before.   

“These bioMEMs devices are much more sophisticated than the implants we find on the market today,” she said, citing cochlear implants and pacemakers as examples. “When you move to very complex systems, like the brain, where you’ve got cognition, thinking, talking, seeing, sensing, and everything else going on, you’ve got to be able to sense and control chemical signals to neurons. Simple electrical stimulation doesn’t work.”

Meng has had some success already.  She is a pioneer in parylene-based (polymer) bioMEMS and microfluidics and has developed tiny microchannel networks that integrate pumps, valves, and sensors into spaces smaller than the tip of a finger.  Some day, these devices may be used to understand the complex pathways in the brain or allow physicians to implant devices that can monitor a patient’s medications.  

“This is breakthrough work because we’re just learning how to control very small amounts of fluid accurately,” she said.  “My research plan is to develop active, multi-channel microfluidic systems that are biocompatible with neural tissue and will advance scientific discovery in cellular biology and neuropharmacology.”

Meng, who received her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, is also associate director of education and diversity programs in the Viterbi School’s Biomimetic Microelectronic Systems (BMES) Engineering Research Center.  BMES is a National Science Foundation-funded interdisciplinary research center dedicated to developing novel implants for the treatment of disabilities such as blindness, paralysis and memory loss.

She has two patents to her name and has published 16 scholarly papers. 
--Diane Ainsworth