Professor wins NAS award

Chris Bettinger, an assistant professor in the department of materials science and engineering, recently received a National Academy of Sciences award for his research initiatives. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) Chris Bettinger, an assistant professor in the department of materials science and engineering, recently received a National Academy of Sciences award for his research initiatives. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor)

Materials science and engineering assistant professor Chris Bettinger’s innovative approaches in designing materials for implanted medical devices have recently been recognized by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) with an award for Initiatives in Research. Supported by Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, the award “recognizes innovative young scientists and encourages research likely to lead toward new capabilities for human benefit,” according to its website.

In addition to performing original research on biodegradable polymers for his Ph.D. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Bettinger was also co-inventor on a number of patents during his time as a graduate student.

Bettinger arrived at Carnegie Mellon in August 2010 to start his own research group, and has since been developing biomedical materials whose physical properties can be altered based on exposure to stimuli such as temperature and electric fields.

Bettinger admitted serendipity as a contributing factor to the inspiration behind his work, but recognized that new ideas often come from making connections among different fields. He noted that it is very easy to get drawn into the specifics of a single problem, especially during undergraduate and graduate studies, and found that there is value to stepping back every once in a while and seeing things from a different perspective.

Whether it is something as simple as reading a new book or attending a seminar in another department, Bettinger believes that the whole process of learning something new is vital to innovation.

“What happens at the very least is you draw parallels,” he said. “The scientific process is pretty symmetric across different disciplines — they’re different cultures, of course — but the whole process is the same, and you can use that to draw connections to other things.”

Bettinger pointed to his own academic path as an example for making interdisciplinary connections. All three of his degrees from MIT are in different areas, spanning from chemical to biomedical engineering to materials science. The jumps across many disciplines was a result of his broad range of interests. “I find that the interesting things are at the intersection [of fields],” Bettinger said.

Despite working across different departments, the common thread throughout Bettinger’s studies has been polymers. He described his interest in polymeric materials by drawing an analogy to molecular building blocks. With polymer chemistry, he explained, the real potential is in the ability to “synthesize materials from the ground up based on a material property that we’re looking for.”

Bettinger takes a very specific approach when designing polymers in his lab; one of his research focuses is to tailor materials for endovascular devices.

For example, one of his current projects is directed toward designing a polymer that can help treat aneurysms. People with aneurysms have a weakened area in a blood vessel which, if left untreated, could fatally rupture. Current treatment methods involve injecting embolic agents that fill an aneurysm to prevent it from growing larger. However, some aneurysms can’t be treated that way due to their shape; if the opening is too wide, embolic agents will flow out of the aneurysm as soon as they’re injected into it. One way to circumvent this problem is to use a device that will narrow the opening, thereby allowing the embolic agents enough time to fill the aneurysm.

Bettinger believes that a biodegradable polymer would be suitable for such a device, and is currently designing a material that would be flexible enough for this purpose.

In addition to addressing clinical problems with specially designed polymers, Bettinger’s research group also designs materials for answering some fundamental questions about biology, such as how the human body recognizes implanted devices or how cells detect and respond to surface structures.

One polymer currently under design has the ability to alter its texture based on exposure to light, and will be used to discover how cells respond to changes in surface topography. By knowing how cells interface with materials, it becomes possible to design materials for applications such as therapeutic cellular stimulation.

Whether fundamental or applied, Bettinger’s research seeks to overcome problems with existing materials and make advances in implantable medical devices.