University of Delaware
Salil Lachke

Strategic research

UDRF Strategic Initiative grants support studies in health, environment, energy and cybersecurity

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11:29 a.m., March 9, 2016--Four early-career researchers have won University of Delaware Research Foundation Strategic Initiative (UDRF-SI) grants to pursue studies in eye health, alternative energy, environmental health and cybersecurity.

The competitive grants, awarded annually by UDRF, are provided as seed money for projects that support the goals of the University's strategic initiative – "Delaware Will Shine" – and show potential for success and the ability to draw additional grant support.

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Each researcher receives $45,000 in support.

The 2015-16 UDRF-SI awards went to:

Salil L. Lachke, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, for his study of cataracts and genetic associations.

Kalehiwot Nega Manahiloh, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, for a microscopic study on the saturated hydraulic conductivity of soil and biochar mixtures.

John Newberg, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, for his study of how catalytic surfaces change under operating conditions.

Chengmo Yang, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, for her work on securing cyber platforms against hardware trojans.

Salil Lachke

Lachke's research focuses on eye disorders, including cataracts, which are a leading cause of blindness around the world and are at the center of this study.

Specifically, he is looking at the genes associated with maintaining transparency in the eye's lens.

He developed an online gene discovery tool called iSyTE (integrated systems tool for eye gene discovery), which is hosted at UD’s Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology.

He and his lab already have identified several genes that, when defective, appear to contribute to the formation of cataracts and this study will test that hypothesis and further define the role of two specific genes – Mafg and Mafk – while also mapping out a gene regulatory network for future analysis of the massive quantity of data collected.

The work is expected to further expand what is known about lens-related genetics and shed light on other genetic links to cataracts, in turn contributing to defining a genetic circuit for lens development and maintenance.

Lachke earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Pune, India, and his doctorate at the University of Iowa. He did postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital before joining the UD faculty in 2011.

In 2012, he was named a Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences, a prestigious award by the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts in recognition of his innovative work, and in 2013 was selected as a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow by a committee of U.S. National Academy of Sciences members. 

His research also has drawn support from the Fight for Sight Foundation, the Alcon Research Institute, the Knights Templar Eye Foundation, INBRE Delaware, and the National Eye Institute and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research of the National Institutes of Health.

Kalehiwot Manahiloh

Manahiloh's research focuses on unsaturated soil mechanics, nondestructive investigation of geomaterials, and micromechanics.

Specifically, this study focuses on investigating the microscopic features found in mixtures of soil and biochar, a type of charcoal used as a soil amendment. Biochar may be a promising piece of strategic response to climate change because of its ability to store carbon dioxide. Estimates suggest that converting agricultural waste into biochar could remove 4 of the 43 gigatons of carbon dioxide produced by humans each year.

Biochar also enhances moisture- and nutrient-retention properties of some soils. But it cannot be applied broadly yet, because it is not clear how to predict its influence on soil hydrology. It has produced good results in some soils, but has been detrimental in others.

Manahiloh's study would look at how soil-biochar mixtures respond under saturated flow conditions, using X-ray CT scans and digital imagery to test two hypotheses about how biochar affects the soil's water conductivity.

The research could have important implications for work on alternative energy and environmental solutions, and could have a significant economic impact for the U.S. poultry industry.

Manahiloh earned bachelor's and master's degress at Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) University and his doctorate at Washington State University in 2013. He joined the UD faculty in 2013.

John Newberg

The Newberg research group focuses on energy and environmental sciences at the molecular level. A major part of that work is studying the effect water has on surfaces and whether it enhances or inhibits chemical changes.

In this study, Newberg and his lab are exploring ways to convert carbon dioxide into liquid fuel, specifically exploring the surface chemistry of silver particles on titanium dioxide while it is performing as a photocatalyst (a catalyst triggered by light) in a carbon-dioxide reduction process.

The work is done at nanoscale, using an ambient-pressure X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy system that he says provides a "unique set of eyes." The uncommon technology enables researchers to see what is happening on surfaces during catalytic processes.

The work will advance UD's catalysis research and its significance for alternative energy and environmental solutions.

Newberg earned his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees at the University of California (Berkeley, Davis and Irvine, respectively), worked as a senior engineer for Intel Corp. where he was part of the team that developed flash memory, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab before joining the UD faculty in 2012.

Chengmo Yang

Yang's research has focused on computer architecture and embedded systems, with emphasis on reliability and efficiency.

In this study, she and her lab will continue to work on ways to defend against "hardware trojans," malicious circuits that attack embedded devices in the Internet of Things and render them untrustworthy.

Because computer hardware is designed, fabricated and tested by many different companies around the world, with various functions outsourced to business partners, hardware platforms are vulnerable to attack through rogues that infiltrate third-party design teams. Their work can cause catastrophic, cascading failure of smart grids, health data, manufacturing, "smart cities" and just about anything else connected to the Internet.

It is important to check if someone along the line has inserted something that could leak confidential information or disrupt other functions, Yang says.

Specifically, the study will focus on developing a vendor-diverse monitoring process that allows individual nodes to keep an eye on neighboring nodes to ensure those neighbors are not colluding against them and also to contribute to a comprehensive detection system that covers the entire connected framework.

Yang completed her undergraduate work at the Peking University in Beijing, China, and master's and doctorate work at the University of California, San Diego. She joined the UD faculty in 2010 and received the prestigious National Science Foundation Early Career Award in 2013.

Article by Beth Miller

Photos by Evan Krape

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