Chemical Engineering Professor Elizabeth Stewart Receives NSF Engineering Research Initiation Award


Chemical Engineering

Elizabeth Stewart, assistant professor of chemical engineering, received a $200,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Initiation (ERI) grant, a prestigious early-career award aimed at supporting new researchers as part of the NSF’s efforts to build engineering research capacity across the nation. 

The ERI program specifically supports new investigators from R2 (doctoral universities with high research activity—such as WPI) and R3 institutions (doctoral universities with moderate research activity) as they initiate their research programs and advance their careers as researchers, educators, and innovators.  The ERI is designed to establish a broader base of investigators at a greater number of universities. 

Stewart’s grant will engineer an innovative microfluidic model to look specifically at how bacteria build biofilms on catheters inserted into blood vessels.  This research aims to unravel how blood vessels and blood flow change the design and strength of those biofilms. 

In her proposal, “Engineering a biofilm infection-on-a-chip to elucidate the host-biofilm interface,” Stewart explained that biofilms are protective “group homes” bacteria build within the body, causing infections. Bacterial biofilms are estimated to cause 65-80% of infections and are not susceptible to conventional antibiotics. The strength and design of the biofilm varies depending on the location where they form within the body. Stewart’s work will develop new tools to identify connections between the design and strength of the biofilm and the specific location where it grows.  This advanced understanding could pave the way for scientists to discover new ways to destroy biofilms and effectively treat infections. 

The award will also support Stewart’s work in mentoring graduate and undergraduate students in STEM outreach, empowering them to educate the public—through local science festivals or other public venues—about how tools for studying infections can help scientists develop new drugs for patient treatment.