UK Grad Student Wins NSF Competition

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 28, 2011) — University of Kentucky chemical engineering graduate student Ashley Hawkins was one of 10 winners for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) poster competition. IGERT is the NSF flagship interdisciplinary training program, educating U.S. Ph.D. scientists and engineers by building on the foundations of their disciplinary knowledge with interdisciplinary training. This was the third year of the NSF poster competition and the third year a UK IGERT student has been one of the 10 winners.

The work contestants present in the NSF-IGERT poster competition transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries and addresses complex research problems of significant scientific and societal importance. Hawkins concentrated her work on "Biodegradable Hydrogel Scaffolds for Tissue Engineering."

"I found this area very interesting because it combined the traditional chemical engineering knowledge and expanded it to biological applications. I think the field of tissue engineering is very important because current methods of regenerating damaged tissue are limited in their properties and success" Hawkins said.

Hydrogels are designed for use as tissue engineering scaffolds and may contain pores large enough to accommodate living cells, or they may be designed to dissolve or degrade away, releasing growth factors and creating pores into which living cells may penetrate and proliferate. The resulting tissue is an organic, not synthetic, tissue. Second surgeries are usually not needed when hydrogels are used. With more recipients than donors for organs and tissue, hydrogels may be the alternative of the future.

"Successful tissue engineering can replace damaged tissue with new, natural tissue as opposed to synthetic materials that cannot fully replicate the original tissue’s properties. This field is becoming increasingly important as the population ages and as a way to improve the quality of life for people who have experienced tissue damage from disease or trauma," Hawkins said.

Hawkins graduated from Trimble County High School in 2004, and received her bachelor's degree from UK in 2008 and is currently pursuing her doctorate. This is the second national contest win for Hawkins.  In 2007, she won second place with her entry "Nanocomposite Biodegradable Polymers: Preparation and the Analysis of Heating, Degradation, and Drug Release" in the Food, Pharmaceutical, & Biotechnology division for the American Institute of Chemical Engineer's (AIChE) student poster competition.  

"I was very excited to be chosen as a representative from the University of Kentucky to present a poster in the competition. It was overall a great experience and I really enjoyed participating." 

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