5 questions with biomedical engineer and new program director for NSF

Chenzhong Li, a Worlds Ahead distinguished professor in biomedical engineering and director of FIU’s Nanobioengineering/Biolectronics Lab, was tapped by the National Science Foundation to work as a program director for his pioneering work in nano-biosensors.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) selected you to be a program director in its Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems (CBET) Division of its Engineering Directorate. Tell us about what you do. I oversee NSF’s biosensors and biomedical devices research nationwide, which includes developing partnerships across different divisions of NSF and working with different federal agencies, such as the Air Force, USDA, DARPA and NIH (among others), to fund projects. My role includes forming and facilitating merit review panels, recommending funding decisions,  overseeing hundreds of current and new funded projects, and influencing new directions in the field of biosensor research across whole nation.

NSF’s Division of Engineering Directorate has targeted many multidisciplinary research areas for rapid development, including advanced manufacturing technologies, information and communication technologies and improved healthcare delivery. My over 30 years’ experience of research in biomedical engineering and analytical chemistry cuts across these areas, supporting fundamental and translational engineering research on biosensors. I’m very excited to be in a prime position to collaborate with others and increase my visibility as I survey the entire breadth of U.S. and international science, engineering and education in real time. Meanwhile, I also can retain my ties to FIU and return to it with new insights and experience for my team.

Tell us about your research in nano-biosensing? My research is interdisciplinary with several ongoing projects in the areas of biomedical devices related to noninvasive cancer therapy and the design and fabrication of biosensors for cell/organ on chips and for point-of-care testings. The major applications for our state-of-the-art biosensing technology is for cancer, neuron and chronic disease diagnosis and treatment. For example, our breakthrough technology consisting of needle-like biosensors for biomarker detection of ABeta peptides in Alzheimer’s can help doctors understand its role in the disease as well as determine drug treatment. (The disease is driven by the production and deposition of the ABeta peptide.)

Another breakthrough technology relates to cancer. We’ve found that electric fields in certain frequency ranges can induce significant effects on suppressing the growth of cancer cells, particularly in breast cancer tissue. This discovery may help develop an electronic therapeutic platform for non-invasive cancer treatment with minimum harmful side effects.

In the last two years, as the FIU lead, I have been engaged in the development efforts of two newly funded NSF Engineering Research Centers including NSF PATHS-UP and NSF CELL-MET. The NSF’s ERCs are interdisciplinary, multi-institutional centers that partner academia, industry and government to work on transformational engineering projects affecting the global economy within the 10-year timeframe of NSF support.

How do you hope that your research will help humanity? In my lab, I strive for the integration of engineering and medical research with an emphasis on the development of miniaturized biomedical devices for both diagnosis and therapy. Our research is unusually multidisciplinary in nature with the interface of organ on chips, biomedical devices, nanomaterials and cellular electronics to revolutionize point-of-care testing. I want to promote a state-of-the-art integrated approach, which could have cross-applications for health, environmental, food safety monitoring and homeland security.

With your new appointment at NSF, will you continue to conduct research at FIU? And if so, how do you balance the two roles? Thanks to the NSF Independent Research/Development (IR/D) program that permits me with IR/D plans to maintain involvement with my professional research, I will continue working with my graduate students and FIU colleagues, commuting back to Miami periodically.

You are also an expert in the development of biomedical devices such as wearable/portable biosensors – where do you see the future of this technology? The high demand for health care – especially for our aging society – and the integration of daily monitoring is emerging. In the near future, smart biosensors will have the potential to integrate with artificial intelligence (AI) with the ability to monitor people’s health throughout their daily lives. These devices will help monitor chronic health conditions, cancer and other diseases.

Chenzhong Li has more than 30 years of experience in biosensors with more than 130 journal publications. He has been routinely serving as an advisor, reviewer and panelist for numerous funding agencies including USA funding agencies and many other international funding agencies like Canada, China, Europe, India and mid-east countries. He is not only an experienced scientist in biomedical engineering, but he’s also dedicated efforts to student education and community service, including contributing to various scientific journals as an editor, which involves handling more than 300 papers a year.