Jacquelyn Nagel: Natural Engineering

She is one of this year’s New Faces of Engineering

7 September 2012

In the course of her short academic career, IEEE Member Jacquelyn Nagel has drawn inspiration from a slew of technical areas including electrical and mechanical engineering, industrial robotics, and laser-aided manufacturing. Recently, nature has been her muse: Her current research in chemical sensors uses biomimicry, which involves adapting biological design to engineering.

Nagel’s research focuses on translating natural sensors to engineering. In other words, she tries to appropriate the mechanisms in plants and animals that react to stimuli for an engineered device that accomplishes similar tasks. Her main sources of inspiration are the functions performed by plant guard cells, which regulate gas transfer, and the spiral shapes of troponin and tropomyosin, proteins that regulate animal muscle contraction depending on calcium levels. She has crafted a conceptual design for a device that would use an array of chemical sensors to pick up indicators of illnesses including colds, diabetes, liver disease, and cancer.

The research earned her a spot among this year’s New Faces of Engineering. She is among 12 nominees chosen in February by the National Engineers Week Foundation, a coalition of more than a dozen engineering societies, including IEEE, as well as major companies and U.S. government agencies. Each society chooses a candidate under 30 who has worked on projects that could significantly affect public welfare or further professional development and growth.

“I was totally shocked when I found out, and happy and grateful,” says Nagel, now 30 and an assistant professor of engineering at James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va. “It helped validate my direction in research and made me feel really good that I had identified something that others also thought was significant.”

Nagel learned that biological sensing systems reacted only when chemicals were at a certain level—a concept she used for her design, which involves a patient breathing into a mechanism that responds to a certain level of signature chemicals. “I got that idea from plants,” she says.

“Chemical sensors often process all levels of a stimulus, resulting in huge data streams. A lot of it is noise,” she says. Since her device reacts only after a critical threshold is met, the noise reduction happens up front.

Each spiral-shaped sensor in her device is coated with a chemomechanical polymer that responds to a critical level of a target chemical by expanding and changing its shape, thus altering the sensor’s resistance to electric current. The resistance change correlates with chemical concentrations, which can be processed by a computer and displayed on a screen. Nagel’s device also consists of redundant sensors—another lesson gleaned from nature—to speed up processing and protect against individual sensor failure.

She’s now working on an analytical model to mathematically define how the device will work. From there, she plans to build a prototype.

But none of her progress would have happened without some happy accidents that led her in a variety of engineering directions.

Growing up in Kansas City, Kan., Nagel became interested in engineering when her high school drafting teacher described an engineer’s job as solving problems. “I was into puzzles, brainteasers, and tinkering around to figure out how things worked,” she says. “To hear there was a whole career dedicated to solving problems—that hooked me right there. I decided to major in electrical engineering because I was interested in understanding circuits and electronics.”

While she was at the University of Missouri-Rolla (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology), her plans veered into a multidisciplinary path. “I simply followed my curiosities,” she says.

While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in EE in 2005, she worked as an electrical engineer at care products conglomerate Kimberly-Clark, in Paris, Texas, and Neenah, Wis., which introduced her to industrial robotics. That led her to pursue a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering in 2007, also from the university. Her graduate program involved working in the laser-aided manufacturing processes lab in Rolla, and she interned in the Dayton, Ohio, office of Motoman, a Japanese automated systems supplier. Those experiences piqued her interest in sensor design.

When she began pursuing a Ph.D. in EE at the university, one of her research advisors told her he had funding only for projects in biomimicry, which she knew nothing about. She spent her first year getting up to speed, researching the design of biological sensors in animals, plants, and single-cell organisms. She began integrating that new understanding into the design of electro-optical sensors. But when she transferred to Oregon State University, in Corvallis, following her advisor in biomimicry, she switched to mechanical engineering and focused on chemical sensors.

After graduating in 2010, she spent a year with Mission Critical Technologies of El Segundo, Calif.—she worked remotely from Virginia—­contributing to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Meta-II program to reduce design and verification times of new research. Last year, she joined the James Madison faculty and resumed her bio-inspired sensor research.

“I never thought about getting into biomimicry as an engineer,” she says, “but it’s really helped me creatively, because it requires me to figure out how to connect concepts and ideas from one domain to another.

“It’s like a research project that’s been going on for the last 3 billion years, and the natural designs we see today in plants and animals are the optimized ones,” she continues. “The tricky part is replicating the natural design to where it can become a piece of functional engineering.”

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