Chemical Engineering Professor Earns NSF’s Most Prestigious Early Career Award

Jacob Elmer, PhD
Jacob Elmer, PhD

In the past two years, Jacob Elmer, PhD, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering, has received three federal research grants worth more than $1M. He was awarded $300,000 from the National Science Foundation to streamline the production of genetically engineered T cells to treat leukemia patients. The National Institutes of Health granted him $254,000—part of a $432,000 grant with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—to study earthworm hemoglobin as a potential blood substitute. And to cap off a year that included the birth of his daughter Riley, Dr. Elmer earned the highly prestigious, five-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER award.

As described by the NSF, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the NSF’s most prestigious award in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization. Such activities are expected to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of integrated contributions to research and education.

Dr. Elmer’s CAREER award for “Manipulating the Innate Immune Response to Improve Gene Therapy,”  will support the study of the innate immune response to nonviral gene therapy in nonimmune cells (e.g. prostate or breast cancer cells). He explains, “Because host cell DNA is usually confined to the nucleus, cytoplasmic DNA is recognized as a sign of viral or bacterial infection. Therefore, even if a new gene is successfully delivered to a cell, the cell’s defense mechanisms can significantly hinder gene therapy.”  Dr. Elmer will conduct an exhaustive study to determine exactly how the cell responds—which specific genes get turned on and what those genes do. If “bad” genes get turned on, how can they be inhibited? Can certain drugs, like those used for autoimmune diseases, be used to counteract those proteins? Or how can “good” genes be taken advantage of?

In addition to its research objectives, Dr. Elmer’s CAREER grant will also provide a number of educational opportunities, including an Intro to Biotechnology module for the VESTED (Villanova Engineering, Science, and Technology Enrichment and Development) program at Villanova. VESTED encourages underrepresented high school students to explore the possibilities of an engineering education while developing the necessary skills required to achieve their goals. The project includes experiments that will allow students to deliver genes to bacteria.

The second educational objective is a Summer Research Experience for Teachers. With funding from this grant, Dr. Elmer will organize a program for high school biology teachers in the Philadelphia area.  Finally, the grant will also benefit undergraduates and graduate students in the College of Engineering who will be given the opportunity to conduct the proposed research. In the past three years, Dr. Elmer has had two dozen undergraduates—including a 2016 Gates Cambridge scholar—assist him in the lab.

Despite his incredible year of research success, Dr. Elmer lets it be known that he loves teaching. “On a day when nothing about the research is working, I can always come back to teaching, and it’s something that I can have fun with.” He leads two cutting-edge electives in the graduate Biochemical Engineering program: Bioengineering Lab Techniques and Protein Engineering, which give him a good excuse to sit down and read in order to stay up to date. He adds, “There have been quite a few instances when I’ve been preparing a lecture and I’ve found something that helps with my research.”

Dr. Elmer says that he appreciates the balance he has found at Villanova, “I want to have a few PhD students, a couple of courses that I enjoy teaching, and at the end of the day, have enough time to spend with my kids, too.”