NMSU chemical engineer receives prestigious NSF CAREER award

Writer: Linda Fresques

Within three short years of joining the chemical engineering faculty Jessica Perea-Houston, NMSU assistant professor of chemical engineering, was recently honored with one of the most prestigious grants offered by the National Science Foundation in recognition to her commitment to research and education. Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards are given to promising junior faculty members to help them build their research programs and establish a track record of successful investigations.

Jessica Perea-Houston

Jessica Perea-Houston, assistant professor of chemical engineering at NMSU, has received an NSF CAREER award for her research on new methods to discover new cell characteristics through the use flow cytometry. (Photo by Darren Phillips.)

NSF CAREER Award recipients exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. The five-year grants are awarded to tenure-track faculty members and each must integrate research with teaching.

Houston joined the chemical engineering faculty at NMSU in 2009. Prior to that she was a director’s postdoctoral fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Bioscience Division performing research in flow cytometry and time-resolved spectroscopy.

Houston earned her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from NMSU, and her master’s degree and doctoral in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University.

Previously she held positions at the Baylor College of Medicine, conducting clinical trials and research in lymphatic mapping; M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, researching small animal optical imaging; and Texas A & M University investigating near infrared fluorescence optical imaging.

Houston’s CAREER five-year award of $500,000 will fund her research into the discovery of modern approaches to detect certain cell characteristics through the use of flow cytometry.

A flow cytometer passes thousands of cells per second, one at a time, through a laser beam and measures both the fluorescence light emitted from each cell as well as the light scattered off the cell from the laser beam. The data is gathered and converted to digital information, which conveys statistics about the physical or molecular state of the cell that is analyzed. Flow cytometers are used by scientists in a broad range of fields, including the diagnosis and monitoring of cancer.

Despite a wide variety of available flow cytometry systems, current systems do not collect an additional, potentially valuable, kind of information in the fluorescence signal. That is, no current cytometer measures the fluorescence lifetime from cells. The reason current cytometers do not detect fluorescence lifetimes is mainly due to the difficulties and complexities required for measuring excited state kinetics; this dearth has in turn limited the number of applications that fluorescence lifetime flow cytometry might find.

The work under this NSF CAREER award involves the discovery of new approaches for performing time-resolved flow cytometry, and devising ways to retrofit commercial cytometry systems to perform these measurements.  It also involves developing applications for these measurements to answer questions about assayed cells

“Despite the historical excellence of biotechnology and bioscience research in New Mexico, as well as high student interest in this field, training opportunities in bioengineering at NMSU have been limited,” said Houston.

The project will enlist Hispanic NMSU undergraduates, graduate students, fifth grade students, and K-8 educators in an education plan that implements learning-through-research activities and cultivates K-8 educational outreach.  It will include interaction with minority students at NMSU and at a culturally marginalized science-magnet elementary school to help build integrated science curricula based around research activities in flow cytometry.

“The project exploits the fact that New Mexico has a rich history in flow cytometry, where it was in part invented,” said Houston. “It possesses historical and regional significance and provides a context for what the science students, as native New Mexicans, can achieve.”

While at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Houston, a native of Santa Fe, worked at the National Flow Cytometry Resource on a large National Institutes of Health research grant. The NFCR pursues the development of advanced flow cytometry instrumentation and applications, and transfers these developments to the biomedical science community.

Her faculty position has allowed her to continue her research in this area. Houston already has three grants totaling more than $650,000 supporting her research—two from the National Institute of Health and one from the National Science Foundation. Two of the grants support development of the technology; the third funds a cooperative effort in the application of the technology.

Houston’s work has introduced a new line of biomedical research to NMSU’s chemical engineering department and with it, collaboration opportunities with fellow faculty members and research opportunities for students. She established the Houston Laboratory of Flow Cytometry and Related Biophotonics that is equipped with three flow cytometers. LANL and the NMSU biology department donated equipment for the lab.

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