Carnegie Mellon University
September 19, 2016

Kathryn Whitehead to Participate in NAE's 21st Annual U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium

Kathryn Whitehead to Participate in NAE's 21st Annual U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium

Kathryn Whitehead, assistant professor of chemical engineering with a courtesy appointment in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has been chosen to be one of the 89 participants in the National Academy of Engineering's (NAE) 21st annual U.S. Frontiers of Engineering (USFOE) symposium.

The symposium — which will be held in Irvine, California — is a two and a half day event for exceptional young engineers, ages 30 to 45, who are performing outstanding engineering research and technical work in a wide range of disciplines. This year's symposium will cover cutting-edge developments in four areas of engineering: cybersecurity, optical and mechanical materials, forecasting natural disasters and engineering the search for earth-like exoplanets. David Brumley, faculty member in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science and director of CyLab will also be attending and serving as co-chair of a cybersecurity and privacy session. 

Whitehead, who recently received the MIT Technology Review 2014 Innovator Under 35 Award, currently focuses her research on drug delivery. "We attempt to engineer materials that can be introduced into the body in a safe way, which hopefully will be able to take drugs to the right organ targets throughout the body," she says.

Whitehead's lab engineers nanoparticle chemistries, which allow difficult-to-deliver drugs like siRNA, a type of genetic molecule in medicine, to be injected into the bloodstream without aggravating the immune system. Her lab also engineers creative methods of drug administration, which are more patient-friendly than injection. In the case of pill ingestion, Whitehead's lab works to overcome the many barriers that exist within the gastrointestinal tract. These barriers include premature drug degradation — drugs being digested in the stomach before they are able to reach the target site within the body — and, once the drug reaches the small intestine, low intestinal permeability that prevents the intact drug from entering the bloodstream.

Though the USFOE symposium will not cover her specific area of research, Whitehead is looking forward to learning about the other areas of engineering that will be covered — particularly the discussion on forecasting natural disasters.

"It's not really relevant to Pittsburgh at all, because we're probably one of the only parts of the country that is not susceptible to natural disasters. But I think the concept of predicting things is very interesting," she says. "Part of the issue with drug delivery is that it's hard to predict what's going to work well in animals and people based on initial lab work using cell culture. One of the things we think about a lot is how to design systems that are going to be predictive of what happens when the stakes and expenses are a lot higher. It's very dynamic, and we need complicated algorithms to figure out what's happening. Perhaps weather is not all that different from our work, in that way."

Whitehead is excited to attend the symposium and to use the opportunity to catalyze new research ideas. "I think creative people, when they listen to talks that are outside their areas of expertise, can get inspired to do new work," she says. And, for Whitehead, one of the best things about science — apart from the science itself — is the people you encounter.

"I love meeting new people," says Whitehead. "With research, the outcomes can be variable, but the relationships you establish with people who are either directly inside your field or tangential — those will last, hopefully, for a lifetime."

Learn more about Whitehead's work: