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NSF grant to fund human skin research

“Skin acts as a physical, chemical and microbial barrier. It also helps regulate temperature and enables mechanoreception: the ability to sense touch,” says Guy German, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering whose research focuses almost exclusively on the body’s largest organ.

“[There is] a diverse population of microorganisms that naturally reside on your skin,” he says. “When [skin] becomes ruptured, its barrier function is lost, leaving underlying living tissue exposed to harmful pathogens. These pathogens can cause a variety of diseases and infections.”

German will continue his research into skin with a five-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Early Career Development (CAREER) program. His project – “Understanding the Multi-scale Failure Mechanics of Human Skin with Age, Ultraviolet Photodamage and Bacterial Growth” – formally begins in July.

“My first reaction to learning about the award was a combination of happiness that I could support more graduate student research and excitement because the award will enable my lab to explore a new research area that I’m passionate about,” German says. “Overall, this project aims to support up to two graduate students over the five years.”

The fundamental research will explore how aging, ultraviolet light and bacteria weaken skin, cause wrinkles and increase the risk of skin rupture. The results will provide a better understanding of the biomechanical aging process, the onset of skin diseases that could be caused by bacteria in the skin microbiome, and new approaches in skin-based drug delivery in creams and ointments. Some of the results may also have applications related to flexible electronics and energy harvesting.

Much of the current work in the field focuses on macro-testing equipment and treating skin as a homogenous material, but skin is heterogeneous at many length scales, German says, so he plans to look at the tissue microscopically. Experiments will combine immunostaining, mechanical manipulation, high-speed imaging and traction force microscopy to show how skin degrades under a variety of conditions.

The National Science Foundation’s CAREER grants support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education while leading advances in their fields. German joined Binghamton’s faculty in 2013.