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Building with Proteins: Dr. Leila Deravi Presents Gwinn Science Lecture
Building with Proteins: Dr. Leila Deravi Presents Gwinn Science Lecture

At the annual William E. Gwinn Memorial Science Lecture on May 11, Dr. Leila Deravi discussed how proteins could be used to build flexible electronic devices, the focus of her research as the lead of the Biomaterials Design Group at Northeastern University. Dr. Deravi also met with students in Engineering class and advised the School's robotics team on their experiments.

The creation and use of wearable electronic devices is a rapidly expanding field, with roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population wearing some sort of fitness tracker or device on a daily basis, Deravi said. But these devices are primarily composed of hard, inorganic materials, which generate waste and are not compatible with the soft and dynamic systems in the body.

"Our long-term vision is to make a device comprised of biologically derived materials that will not cause any negative effects when it's implanted in someone's body," Deravi explained. "Our hope is that this type of device is better suited to interface directly with your cells, tissues, and organs."

In order to achieve this goal, Deravi and her team incorporate different types of manufacturing techniques, including inkjet printing, to create and assemble networks of protein materials, which serve as the organic base layer for future flexible electronic devices.

Now, they are working on adapting programmable functions for their devices, taking inspiration from marine animals. One function that the team is researching is adaptive coloration in cephalopods, such as squid or cuttlefish.

"These animals can appear out of nowhere by using multiple optical and sensory organs in their skin. We are interested in how and why they can change color so quickly," Deravi said.

Deravi and her group was able to identify individual pigment-based nanoparticles that are responsible for the range of visible color in squids. They are continuing to study how these pigments can be synthesized and implemented as new materials that will have the same function.

"We are really interested in the chemistry regulating color change in cephalopods. But at my core, I am a materials scientist, which means being able to apply this knowledge to build something very elegant that people can actually use."

Dr. Leila Deravi is an assistant professor in the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University. She has led the Biomaterials Design Group, an interdisciplinary research team, at Northeastern since 2014. She received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Alabama, a doctorate in chemistry at Vanderbilt University, and completed her post-graduate studies in biomedical engineering at Harvard University.