Terri Camesano Receives 2014 Chairman's Exemplary Faculty Prize at WPI Commencement

May 16, 2014

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Terri Camesano, professor of chemical engineering and assistant dean of engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), received the 2014 Chairman's Exemplary Faculty Prize during the university’s 146th Commencement exercises today.

The tradition of awarding the prize, which honors WPI faculty members for overall excellence, was established in 2007 through the personal philanthropy of Donald K. Peterson '71, then chairman of the WPI Board of Trustees, and is continued this year by current board chairman Warner Fletcher.

The Chairman's Exemplary Faculty Prize, in the amount of $10,000, recognizes and rewards faculty members who excel in all relevant areas of faculty performance, including teaching, research and scholarship, and advising.

Camesano joined the WPI faculty in 2000 after earning a BS in chemical engineering and environmental science at the University of Rochester, an MS in environmental engineering at the University of Arizona, and a PhD in environmental engineering at Pennsylvania State University. Over the course of more than a decade, she has conducted pioneering research on the biochemical mechanisms bacteria use to adhere to living and non-living substrates. To perform their functions— whether starting infections or causing tooth decay—bacteria must stick to surfaces, where they can form antibiotic-resistant colonies called biofilms.

She has developed novel techniques for studying her tiny subjects—for example, using the atomic force microscope to measure the forces that hold bacteria in place. By exploiting what she learns about bacterial adhesion, she has been able to identify compounds that can disrupt adhesion and prevent biofilm formation. In work that gained extensive media coverage, she showed how E. coli bacteria stick to cells in the urinary tract, and how compounds in cranberry juice prevent adhesion—and infections. She is also studying natural antimicrobial peptides, including those from fish gills, with the goal of developing coatings that can prevent biofilm formation on all kinds of surfaces, including medical implants. And she is exploring tools that can kill virulent bacteria in soil.

Camesano's research has been funded by a number of awards from federal agencies and organizations, including a highly prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award, additional grants from the NSF, and awards from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Army. Her work has resulted in more than 60 scholarly publications and book chapters, one edited book, more than 100 presentations, and invited lectures in the United States, Australia, and Europe.

A creative and innovative educator, Camesano brings her enthusiasm for discovery to her classroom, welcomes undergraduates into her lab, and in 2002 established a partnership with École Nationale Supérieure des Industries Chimiques (ENSIC) in Nancy, France, through which more than 50 chemical engineering majors have gained global experience while working on their major projects.

Over the past decade, she has helped create and run several high-profile, federally funded academic programs. She was the principal investigator for an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program that gave undergraduates from across the country the opportunity to teach in the two-week BioDiscovery Camp for middle-school girls. She also established an innovative program for middle-school teachers, also funded by the NSF. A goal of these programs and of an annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day that Camesano spearheads to inspire girls to think about one day pursuing careers in engineering.

Currently, Camesano is the principal investigator on five-year, $3 million award through the NSF's highly competitive Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program. The first such award received by WPI, it is funding an innovative graduate program in biofabrication through which students learn to conduct research in an emerging area of biomedicine and to translate their discoveries into innovative solutions that can improve people's lives.

Despite the heavy demands of her extensive research, teaching, and advising activities, Camesano has been active in service to the university and her profession. For example, is on the editorial board for the highly regarded journal Applied & Environmental Microbiology and she is organizing an Advanced Research Workshop on Nanotechnology to Aid Chemical and Biological Defense; funded by NATO, it is planned for September 2014 in Antalya, Turkey.

To explore her interest in academic administration, she won an appointment as a HERS Faculty Fellow at the Wellesley College Institute for Women in Higher Education Administration and was selected for the inaugural class of ELATE (Executive leadership in Academic Technology and Engineering) fellows at Drexel University. With that preparation, earlier this year she was selected to serve as WPI's first assistant dean of engineering.