Giving to Brown

From Cell Membranes to Tadpoles, An Investment In The Future

It can be hard for scientists and engineers to explain what they do—especially when their work lies at the intersection of different disciplines, and when it’s conducted more in the lab or on a computer screen than in the field.

“It’s so much easier to talk about applied science,” says Associate Professor of Engineering Petia Vlahovska. For instance, one of Petia’s interests involves the mechanics of biomembranes. It’s fundamental research, and it can be a long way to the sort of applied research that makes headlines in newspapers—such as gene therapy that relies on punching holes in cell membranes big enough to transfer DNA, and then closing them again without harming the cell.

We are building the foundations of knowledge.
—Associate Professor of Engineering Petia Vlahovska

Scientists need expertise in both fundamental science and its applications, and Petia has found the balance. These days her work on cell membranes can help researchers seeking to engineer cells to manufacture proteins we need. And her research into complex fluids—a class of common substances such as chocolate and blood—has relevance to the petroleum industry. Heavy oils need to be pumped, and Petia examines how to make that easier by creating emulsions or using electric fields to make the fluids less viscous.

Oh, and those electric fields? They also influence cells and cell membranes. A cut in your skin, Petia explains, generates an electrical field that tells nearby epidermal cells where to migrate to help heal the wound. Similar things happen in the brain—most remarkably, in the brain of a tiny animal called the xenopus tadpole. “When you cut the tail off, it regenerates completely—including the nerves of the spinal cord,” she says. “There’s a lot more research to be done on how the electrical signal that is believed to guide the regeneration works. Knowing the fundamentals will help us to engineer things better.”

Here as a visiting faculty member from 2003 to 2005, Petia is happy to be back: Her research won her tenure in July 2013 at Brown’s School of Engineering. And she continues to receive funding from the National Science Foundation (from which she won the Faculty Early Career Development Program award). 

As the School of Engineering looks to grow its faculty as part of its expansion plans, opportunities for collaboration between individuals and departments will also grow. “We are building the foundations of knowledge that other people can take and apply,” Petia says. “The applied science is useful now, and the fundamental research: That’s an investment in the future.”