Two engineering faculty members recognized with NIH Awards

Two Engineering at Illinois faculty members—Sua Myong and John A. Rogers—are among 81 researchers receiving awards to pursue visionary science that exhibits the potential to transform scientific fields and speed the translation of research into improved health, under the High Risk High Reward program supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Common Fund.

Sua Myong
Sua Myong

“The Common Fund High Risk High Reward program provides opportunities for innovative investigators in any area of health research to take risks when the potential impact in biomedical and behavioral science is high,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins.

Sua Myong, an assistant professor of bioengineering and a researcher at the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois, was recognized with the NIH New Innovator Award. Her research group focuses on the detection of biological molecules such as DNA, RNA and protein with single molecule precision.

“Owing to its unique ability to down regulate a specific gene, RNA interference (RNAi) has been widely used for biological research and applied for therapeutic purposes.” Myong said. “Nevertheless, recent studies report various off-target effects which result in unintended gene silencing or extremely low efficiency of silencing even when the RNA substrates are optimized for its maximal effect.

“We propose to develop series of single molecule and single cell measurements to dissect the RNAi pathway step by step. Each platform will enable one to quantify the efficiency of RNA processing at each step by direct counting of molecules. When engineered into a device, such technique can be adopted by research laboratories and clinical practices for designing siRNA for high silencing potency. Our proposal involves developing novel single molecule platforms which allow quantitative and stepwise analysis of RNAi pathway and opens a new way of assessing and predicting siRNA efficacy.”

John Rogers
John Rogers

Rogers, the Lee J. Flory-Founder Chair in Engineering Innovation at Illinois, is co-principal investigator on a 2012 Transformative Research Award with Robert W. Gereau, and Michael R. Bruchas, at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. With faculty appointments in materials science and engineering, chemistry, mechanical science and engineering, bioengineering, and electrical and computer engineering, Rogers has pioneered the development of semiconductor materials and flexible, stretchable electronics, applying his expertise to devise technology solutions across such broad fields as solar power, biointegrated electronics, sensing, thin film metrology, and fiber optics.

According to the his group’s proposal, “The multidisciplinary team of materials science engineers and neurobiologists was assembled to facilitate synergy to enhance pioneering of completely novel tools for dissection, modulation, and control of neuronal function. Recently, an elegant technique was developed allowing for unprecedented control and specificity in mapping the molecular and cellular properties of neural circuits. This technique, termed ‘optogenetics,’ takes advantage of light-sensitive ion channels, pumps, and G-protein coupled receptors to control neuronal activity and signaling with exceptional temporal precision."

The NIH award funds the development of “new micro-scale light-emitting devices that allow permanent integration with the peripheral and central nervous system. These multi-functional devices, controlled using wired or wireless technology, will be used in combination with recently developed ‘optogenetic’ tools to understand the biological mechanisms of, and develop and test potential new treatments for, nerve injury pain.”

The Transformative Research awards program, established in 2009, promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that has the potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms.

In 2012, the NIH is awarding 10 Pioneer awards, 51 New Innovator awards, and 20 Transformative Research awards. The total funding, which represents contributions from the NIH Common Fund and multiple NIH institutes and centers, is approximately $155 million. For more information on the New Innovator award including information on this year's awardees, visit the website

Contact: Sua Myong, Department of Bioengineering, 217/244-6703.

John A. Rogers, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, 217/244-4979.

Edmond Byrnes, DPCPCI/OSC (Common Fund), 301/451-6869.

NIH Office of Communications, 301/496-5787.

Contact: Rick Kubetz, writer/editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-7716.