University of California, Santa Barbara

ME Professor Megan Valentine Wins NSF CAREER Award to support her research on neuron mechanics


Assistant Professor Megan Valentine was recently awarded a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation to support the teacher-scholars deemed most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. Prof. Valentine's $400,000 award, for the proposal "An Integrated Approach to Neuron Mechanics: Deciphering the Functional, Mechanical, and Structural Interactions between Microtubules and Actin," will support her work on neuron mechanics. Neurons are specialized cells, with highly elongated geometries, that form mechanically connected networks to enable transmission of signals in the nervous system. The development of healthy neural networks depends on the action of filamentous cytoskeletal structures: actin guides neuron growth and adhesion, while microtubules serve as the tracks for the long-distance intracellular transport of proteins and organelles that is required to maintain the extended cell protrusions. The Valentine Research Group aims to determine the extent and nature of the coordination between the actin and microtubule structures by measuring how errors in long-distance transport affect cell adhesion and motility, and how chemically- and mechanically-engineered scaffolds that modulate adhesion affect transport. Additionally, they will investigate the effects of sudden impact injury on single neuron mechanics, adhesion and transport.

Prof. Valentine, ME graduate student Nick Zacchia and Pasadena City College student and VIBRANT intern Tim Thomas at work in the lab (Photo Credit: UCSB).  Nick and Tim’s project focuses on developing new magnetic tweezers devices to apply forces to biological networks and neuronal cells.

Prof Valentine’s research will provide a new paradigm for the experimental investigation of neurons – one that integrates distinct features such as adhesion or transport into one comprehensive model of neuron function. Ultimately, the results will lead to the design of improved neural devices and implantation materials, and novel treatment strategies for a wide range of neurological disorders. By studying the effects of force on neuron health, the Valentine Lab will gain new insight into traumatic brain injuries (TBI), which affect many combat veterans, athletes and accident victims. Through this award, Prof. Valentine has also created a new internship program, Veteran-student Internships in Biomechanics Research and NeuroTechnology (VIBRANT) to bring veteran students from local community colleges to campus to pursue independent research. The goal of this immersive research experience is to motivate and encourage veteran students to pursue careers in biomechanical engineering, while providing them with the hands-on skills they need to succeed in this emerging field.

For additional information on Professor Valentine's work, please visit her website at:

Movie showing the transport of intracellular cargos (here, fluorescently labeled mitochondria) in the axonal processes of PC12 cells. The movie is playing at 5X normal speed. (Movie Credit: Materials graduate student Dezhi Yu).

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