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An early career award for a precocious alum

Chris Jewell ’03 (second from left) leads an active group of student researchers at the University of Maryland, where he is assistant professor of bioengineering.

Chris Jewell ’03 has always been a bit ahead of his time.

When he enrolled at Lehigh 15 years ago, Jewell knew he wanted to study bioengineering. The field was new and programs did not yet exist at many universities, including Lehigh.

But he found another avenue that allowed him to blend his interests in biology and engineering.

“I knew that I was interested in biology and that I wanted to be an engineer,” says Jewell, now an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Maryland. “Lehigh allowed me to design a path—through the arts-engineering program—that helped me do what I wanted.”

The arts-engineering program allows students to earn two bachelor’s degrees—one in the College of Arts and Sciences and one in the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science—in five years.

Jewell, while playing percussion for the Lehigh Philharmonic and Wind Ensemble, traveling to Italy with the Martindale Scholars program and winning the Leonard Pool prize for entrepreneurship, completed degrees in chemical engineering and in molecular biology—in four years.

“I got to learn about both areas and then I built on that,” he says. “I am grateful to Lehigh for helping me do what I was interested in and passionate about. It’s definitely still a big part of who I am.”

The new face of engineering

Following his time on South Mountain, Jewell went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008.

In 2012, as a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was featured in USA Today representing the chemical engineering discipline as a “New Face of Engineering” during National Engineer’s Week. The national newspaper cited the potential for Jewell’s research to lead to new “therapeutic vaccines for treating cancer of autoimmunity.”

Recently, Jewell received a five-year, $438,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. The award—his second major research grant—will support his vaccine design and immunotherapy research.

Jewell and his team are exploring how different biomaterials interact with the immune system. Their research could lead to new biomaterials that transport vaccines through the body, as well as help tune immune response to fight particular diseases.

The NSF award will also help Jewell expand a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) outreach program that his lab created at a nearby Maryland high school. Jewell says he got his first exposure to science education outreach initiatives during his time at Lehigh.

Jewell’s STEM outreach consists of two programs. The first is a three-week mini-course in which nearly 70 high school students work with graduate students and postdocs to learn about vaccines and conduct experiments with polymers and nanotechnology in the Jewell lab.

The second program is providing a select group of 20 high school students with a year-long opportunity to learn about research by exploring a bioengineering topic. Each high school student has been paired with a graduate student or postdoctoral mentor, and assigned to interview experts, read scientific literature and write a review article. Among the topics the students have chosen are the use of stem cells to treat brain damage, therapies for multiple sclerosis and biomechanics in sports medicine.

The program will culminate later this spring, Jewell says, when each student will develop and present a poster during a research symposium on campus.

“We want the students to see how much stuff there is to do in the research world,” Jewell says. “Things people just aren’t exposed to.”

Plus, Jewell points out that there is a direct benefit to the graduate and postdoctoral mentors who are participating in the outreach program. “They are getting training in science leadership that grad students and postdocs don’t always get,” he says.

When asked what his future holds, Jewell, at the ripe old age of 33, is already looking to the next generation.

“It’s amazing being a professor,” Jewell says. “For me, the next step is making my students a success, helping them to achieve their research goals and submit papers, and challenge them. I’ve had great mentors and developing people is a characteristic that all of them have shared.

“When you help your team to develop and to answer their questions, to get more grants and get more papers out, that’s critical to taking your research to the next level.

That “next level,” Jewell says, is to work with his clinical collaborators in hopes of one day taking the concepts that he and his team are working on in the lab and contributing to new clinical options for patients.

Story by Jennifer Marangos

Posted on Monday, May 12, 2014

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