Melanie Ecker standing in front of lab shelves

UNT College of Engineering professor Melanie Ecker, Ph.D. has been granted an award of $553,036 through the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER).

In response to the honor, Ecker stated, “I am super excited to receive this prestigious award to establish a research program on smart polymeric biomaterials. But I would not have been successful without the support from my Department, the College, and the Office of Research. Special shout out to our Department Chair, Dr. Vijay Vaidyanathan, for being such a supportive, approachable, and caring person.”

Ecker’s “Shape Memory Polymers as Biomaterial” project uses heat shrink tubing as its inspiration and seeks to develop a polymer that can perform similarly under bodily conditions. Her research will focus on identifying the underlying mechanism that causes the shape memory polymer to shrink inside the body within minutes and without the need for extreme heat conditions. Using this information, the project would then progress to identify a polymer with this mechanism that is biocompatible and biodegradable.

“I have had a passion for polymers ever since graduate school. Shape memory polymers are especially fascinating materials due to their shape-morphing capabilities.” Ecker elaborated, “these polymers have the potential to be utilized as a biomaterial in a variety of biomedical applications. Materials that can self-deploy inside the body enable applications in minimally invasive procedures. However, shape memory polymers are not commonly used as a biomaterial because some challenges remain. I want to change that, which is why we aim to investigate these materials and their potential applications systematically.”

The intended application of this future development is to seal body parts and organs after surgery or injury. This past fall, we received a sneak peek into the idea process and possible applications in UNT’s “the Lab” series episode “What if Plastics Were Smart.” Ecker also broke down this project and the future possibilities of smart polymers in her 2021 TEDxUNT talk “How Can We Use Plastics in a Smart Way?”

In addition to the research component, Ecker’s project includes educational activities designed to increase excitement, awareness, and interest in the emerging field of smart polymeric biomaterials. These programs will specifically encourage women and underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in biomedical engineering through a mentoring program. She utilized her personal experience to emphasize the value, “as a first-generation student and woman in STEM, I know firsthand how important it is to have mentors and role models. We have a very diverse student body here at UNT, and I want ALL students to feel they belong and can succeed by pairing them with older peers with similar personal identities, backgrounds, and journeys.”

But, quite possibly, the most intriguing element of the project is the proposal of ‘science slam’ events held locally to engage curious non-scientists in a fun and less technically focused way. “Science slams, which are very similar to poetry slams, were very popular in Germany when I went to graduate school.” Ecker explained, “these are competitions where young scientists must communicate their research projects in short talks in an engaging way that is easy to follow by non-specialists. In the end, the audience votes for the best presentation. I wanted to ‘import’ that format to North Texas because I think that they are a fun and engaging way to (1) teach students how to communicate their research effectively and (2) inform the public about the exciting research projects that are being realized in their neighborhood.“

These events are anticipated to start this fall at Discovery Park and grow throughout Denton and the surrounding areas as the program attracts a broader audience.

The CAREER program is the National Science foundation’s most prestigious award. It grants funding to untenured faculty who are deemed to have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Ecker joins fellow professor Amir Jafari, Ph.D., as the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s second CAREER award recipient.