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SU chemist Luk receives NSF CAREER Award for work on molecules that self-assemble

July 31, 2009

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-8085

Yan-Yeung Luk, assistant professor of chemistry in Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences, was recently awarded a $430,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award under the auspices of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Luk will use the award to expand his study of a new class of water-soluble molecules that can spontaneously self-assemble (stick together) to form new kinds of materials for use in the biomaterials and biopharmaceutical industries.

LukThe CAREER Award, the NSF's most prestigious and competitive award for young faculty members, recognizes outstanding scientists and engineers who, early in their careers, show exceptional potential for leadership.

Until now, only soap molecules were thought to be able to self-assemble in water. However, Luk and his research team recently discovered a new kind of molecule that can also self-assemble in water using a different mechanism than soap. The discovery was recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Soap molecules self-assemble in water because part of a soap molecule is oily. The oily components stick together because oil and water do not mix. Luk's new molecule does not contain an oily substance; instead, it self-assembles in a microenvironment that repels water molecules. This repelling action enables the positively and negatively charged components of the new molecule to connect.

Other kinds of molecules, such as salt, which is composed of positively charged sodium ions and negatively charged chloride ions, dissolve in water because there is nothing to prevent the water molecules from separating the ions.

In contrast, Luk's new molecule is composed of sodium ions and negatively charged carboxylic ions as well as an aromatic component. This aromatic component repels the water molecules, allowing the new molecules to self- assemble in their own protective microenvironment.

When these molecules are assembled, they can be used to support polymer coatings and the formation of a new kind of hydrogel. Because of its unique structure, this hydrogel can function or behave like living tissues. Luk's research team is exploring ways to use this new material as a molecular factory to make new drugs and as a biodegradable implant for tissue regeneration.

Luk has been at Syracuse University since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Polytechnic University, New York, and a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry from the University of Chicago. He did a postdoctoral fellowship in chemical and bioengineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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