Published: April 27, 2004

$500,000 Award will help Anseth build on existing projects

ARLINGTON, Va.- If the name Kristi Anseth hasn't reached our collective consciousness as yet, just wait a bit. Anseth, a chemical and biological engineer at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is already "reaching for the heights" by leading a team of researchers in building the scaffolds, or frameworks, of new materials that will dramatically elevate many aspects of medical care for injuries and disease.

Anseth, at just 35, is a nationwide leader in the study of biomaterials, and her work in creatively intersecting chemistry, biology and engineering may one day lead to wide use of easily replaceable body parts for people suffering from injuries or chronic conditions.

Today she adds one more honor to an already extensive list of awards for her research and teaching.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has named Anseth to receive the Alan T. Waterman Award, the foundation's highest honor for a young researcher. The award carries with it a medal and a $500,000 grant over a three-year period to do research or advanced study in the field and institution of her choosing. NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research in science and engineering across all disciplines at the nation's colleges and universities.

Anseth's award is based on groundbreaking work in new biomaterials that are engineered to help the body heal itself. The availability of these new materials, as opposed to the use of synthetic body parts, may lead to sooner-than-expected developments for treating knees, hips and even heart structures in ways that will contribute to faster healing and a quicker return to a better quality of life for the injured and temporarily disabled. And despite the voluminous list of awards, publication citations and patents on her resume, she speaks passionately of what "can be."

That exuberance struck a chord 12 years ago with Nicholas Peppas, Anseth's academic adviser at Purdue University, where Anseth transferred after attending Williston State College in her native North Dakota for two years. There, she played volleyball and basketball, and became an academic All-American in her second year as a basketball player.

Anseth decided to choose academics over athletics, transferring to Purdue, where she attracted the attention of Peppas. He saw what she could be, academically and professionally, and encouraged her to go on to graduate school.

Good advice, apparently, because from that point, Anseth started on a fast track toward her Ph.D., and hasn't slowed her pace since.

She is a student of such ability and focus, she earned a doctorate at CU-Boulder in 1994, just two years after completing her bachelor's at Purdue. A researcher of such stature so early in her career, she was the first engineer to become an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and also, the only woman engineer. A scientist of such creativity, she combined her knowledge of biology, chemistry and engineering into an interdisciplinary focus on tissue engineering, allowing her to find ways to develop new synthetic "scaffolds" or templates to regulate cell behavior and function, and promote ways for them to proliferate and form natural, but new, living tissues.

"The scaffold is really just re-created tissues, and if you think of it like a building, this is a framework from which other structures can be formed," Anseth explains. The scaffold itself is designed to be injected into the body in liquid form, to start with. But when molecules are introduced that are light-activated, a gel-like solid is formed, providing an affected area with strength, stability and flexibility.

Anseth's lab was the first to develop light-activated biomaterials that would degrade and be useful for interacting with cells, while promoting regrowth of tissue. The hope is that development of these biodegradable, flexible materials may be medically available within a decade for procedures that will allow the "injection" of new body parts into persons who are injured or suffer from debilitating injuries or diseases -- without the trauma that can accompany major surgery.

"We still have to answer some questions about how to make a scaffold structurally and mechanically able to produce functional cartilage, how to accelerate cartilage formation and control degradation of the scaffolds, and then fabricate the scaffolds in such a way as to minimize surgical invasiveness while facilitating their placement during a procedure," Anseth says.

Anseth's awards come from many sectors because of her discoveries. She earned a Colburn Award from the American Institute for Chemical Engineers as the most outstanding individual in that field under age 36. She received a 2001 Materials Research Society Young Investigator Award. She also received an NSF Faculty Early Career Award (CAREER) to develop a new class of polymers that can be used for orthopedic applications, such as bone (fracture) repair. Her research articles, published in more than 80 journals, have been cited about 1,300 times.

Anseth is an award-winning teacher. Her mentoring of students has garnered them no fewer than eight NSF Graduate Research Fellowships and numerous other awards from major technical socieities, including the Materials Research Society, Americal Chemical Society and the Society for Biomaterials, for outstanding graduate research.

"I am fortunate to have great students. I get to talk to them about research ideas, and then they translate the ideas to real results through their hard work," she says.

Anseth has a positive outlook on her field of chemical engineering. In 1994, the year she received her doctoral degree, only 113 women received Ph.D.s of the total 725 new Ph.D.s awarded nationwide, according to NSF's "Survey of Earned Doctorates." While the 2002 nationwide totals for women Ph.D.s in chemical engineering rose to 25 percent, the numbers are even higher at CU-Boulder.

"About 40 percent of the undergraduates in chemical engineering here are women, and just over half of the students in my own group are women," Anseth says. "These students are being exposed to an interdisciplinary environment, and they're poised to build exciting new directions for our exciting field."

The Waterman Award, created in 1975, is named for NSF's first director, and recognizes demonstrated individual achievements in scientific or engineering research that place the awardee at the forefront of his or her peers. Criteria include originality, innovation and significant impact on the individual's field of science or engineering. Candidates must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and not be more than 35 years old, or seven years beyond receiving a Ph.D., by the end of the year in which nominated.

"I'm very humbled by this award, and it hasn't really sunk in yet," Anseth said.

Not to worry. "Sinking in" is not a concept for Kristi Anseth. She's too busy, thankfully, creating and building for the future benefit and better health of many people.