Hanna Cho wins NSF BRITE Pivot Award

Posted: January 9, 2023
Cho with PhD student Hans Herath and Postdoctoral Research Associate Myungjin Jung
Cho with PhD student Hans Herath and Postdoctoral Research Associate Myungjin Jung

Hanna Cho, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has received a $548,014 Boosting Research Ideas for Transformative and Equitable Advances in Engineering (BRITE) Pivot Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for her research on how bone remodels itself into an ideal structure and material in an aim to understand the piezoelectric effect of collagen.

The BRITE Pivot Award is intended to enable researchers to quickly adapt to the fast-moving pace of research and create new knowledge and research products in their field by infusing new concepts from a different discipline or sub-field. Cho, whose expertise is in micro/nano technology, will use this award to do research in the field of biology.

“Bone is a ‘smart’ material adapting its material composition and properties in response to external loading to maintain mechanical integrity,” Cho said. “Thus, understanding the mechanism to control its adaptive behavior is extremely useful not only for improving clinical treatment but also for mimicking its design strategy for boundless engineering applications.”

The underlying mechanism of mineral deposition in bone is not currently known, but the NSF BRITE Pivot award will support Cho’s project, “Investigating the Role of Collagen Piezoelectricity in Biomineralization Enhanced by Force Inputs” to try and understand the process in which the location of mineral build-up in bone is determined.

Cho’s hypothesis is that the piezoelectric response of collagen to loading is the key to understanding this mineral deposition process. She believes that when the collagen experiences stress along the vertical axis of the body, the piezoelectric charges along the surface of the collagen fibers attract mineral precursors toward the collagen surface and orient this mineralization in alignment with the collagen template.

Piezoelectricity is the ability of certain materials to create an electric field in response to applied mechanical stress. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and, in bone, acts as the scaffolding of bone cells.

Cho’s study will address this hypothesis with a state-of-the-art experimental methodology that will investigate the effect of physical loading on biomineralization. Using her expertise in the field of micro/nano-systems, a unique experimental platform will be developed by combining advanced Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) and micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) loading device to image and biomineralization of collagen under physiological loading to directly observe and investigate in-vitro mineralization correlated with various conditions.

“Once our hypothesis is proven, the knowledge potentially obtained from this study will provide optimal strategies to design ‘smart’ materials that can respond to external environmental cues,” Cho said. “The development of such smart materials is truly transformative in that they can shift the paradigm in a broad spectrum of engineering applications, for example, bone substitutes, bio-materials, robotics, automotive industry, clinical treatment, and electronics, when it is combined with the ongoing development of 3-D printing and machine learning technology.”

Additionally, this project will support the local community, providing research opportunities for undergraduate students, and through the Korean-American society, a mini conference for high school and early college students will be created as well as specific efforts in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at Ohio State.

“This award has much meaning to our lab because this is the first external funding in the biology area,” Cho said. “We will apply our expertise in micro/nanotechnology to enter this new area. This research idea has been explored in my lab for the last several years, but it was tough to secure external funding because we lack expertise in the biology field. I expect this award will bring great momentum to our group so we can infuse new concepts and methods to address the fundamental biological question.”