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McFarlane Wins Inaugural PACT Award

Nicole McFarlane, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science has been named the first recipient of the Science Alliance’s Program for Advancing Collaborative Teams (PACT). Her research proposes to investigate hybrid biomicroelectronic systems.

Introduced in late 2021, the PACT program provides support for collaborative research intended to target large external funding opportunities, such as the National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSEC) award.

McFarlane has spent much of her career establishing expertise on electrical sensors and working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) researchers on biomicroelectronics. Now she hopes to develop a system with a closed loop between biological and electronic components, transforming the existing communication model between electronics and cells.

“Historically, the communication in these kinds of systems has been one-way. Usually, the electronics are just taking measurements from the cells,” said McFarlane. “In a lot of cases, cells are actually the better sensors.”

McFarlane plans for her team’s system to use two-way communication between the electronics and the cells to further optimize the sensor’s performance. This would allow the electronics to affect the behavior of the cell and what it senses. One potential use for this technology could be health monitoring via an implantable sensor. In one patient, the cells in the sensor could be tasked with monitoring a thyroid hormone. In another patient the cells could monitor insulin. The potential end-point applications of such a sensor are many and range from national security to space exploration.

McFarlane’s background in electronics and sensors is one critical piece of this project, but its outcomes will depend on the collaboration between she and her partners. Steven Ripp, research professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, will leverage his experience with synthetic biology and bioelectronics to aid in the development of the proposed system. Nickolay Lavrik, research scientist in the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at ORNL and joint faculty professor at the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Education joins McFarlane and Ripp. Lavrik’s proficiency in materials science and 3D printing will prove invaluable to the development of the hybrid biomicroelectronics.

PACT is the newest Science Alliance program aimed at not only continuing the growth of UT-ORNL collaborations, but also creating opportunities for significant on campus interdisciplinary research with potentially far reaching impacts.

“This PACT award is the largest single investment that Science Alliance has made in a research team over our nearly 40 year history of supporting collaborations at UT and ORNL, which highlights the high level of enthusiam that the Science Alliance community has for the meritorious and transformational research being performed by Nicole’s team,” said Shawn Campagna, Science Alliance director and professor and associate department head of chemistry.

The PACT program will open for proposals again in the fall. Second year funding is available to awarded projects following an evaluation process.