Technology translates nature in UA's newest doctoral program


Gecko toe pads, with their impressive adhesion, present a model for dry-adhesive nanotechnology. Rat whiskers, with their shape-recognition capability, inspire robots equipped with mechanical probes for improved sensory ability. Spider silk, with its extraordinary strength, provides the basis for a high-performance muscle.

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Lara Roketenetz, second-year graduate student, examines eurasian water milfoil (an invasive species in aquatic systems) in the laboratory growth cultures where experiments to control its spread are being conducted. This work is a collaborative effort between student scientists in the integrated biosciences program and Enviroscience Inc.

Such research comes from scientists who employ creative perspectives and work in collaboration with those in multiple academic disciplines. The training of new doctoral-level researchers at the intersection of biology with other disciplines is the defining feature of the integrated bioscience doctoral program at The University of Akron. The program is unique in Ohio and is one of only a handful of such programs nationwide.

Importance to health, economy, envrionment

“Biological problems rank among the most pressing that face our society by virtue of their scientific importance and because of their consequences for national health, the economy and environmental stability,” says Dr. Peter Niewiarowski, interim director of the program. ”Although reductionist approaches have fueled the rapid growth of biological science over the last 150 years, major advances in understanding complex systems are expected to come from the integration of biology with fields such as physics, chemistry, math and engineering.”

Niewiarowski says that the program was designed to train a new generation of bioscientists precisely at these interfaces.

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Cecilia Boutry, third-year graduate student, examines a specimen under the scope. Boutry studies the material properties of silk and how they are related to the construction and function of spider webs. Such information is critical to understanding how to use silk in making better-advanced materials such as paint, armor and synthetic muscle.

Faculty and students cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries and incorporate a wide range of approaches, techniques and types of organisms in the context of well defined, fundamental and applied questions leading to innovation and focused on synthesis, Niewiarowski explains.

UA’s integrated bioscience program brings together more than 50 faculty members from 13 departments housed in the colleges of arts and sciences, engineering, and polymer science and polymer engineering, creating an innovative new curriculum to train doctoral candidates in core disciplines, but with an eye toward emergent questions and problems at their interfaces with biological science.  


Tim Astrop, second-year graduate student, operates the biology department's blimp out at the Bath Nature Preserve. The blimp is used in high-resolution imagery acquisition needed to corroborate remote sensing data used in GIS.

Supports research mission

With more than 25 students currently training in cutting-edge research areas such as computational biology and bioinformatics, biomaterials, biomedical engineering and environmental bioscience, substantial opportunities exist for the creation of new knowledge, technologies and services in the biological and biomedical sciences, according to Dr. George Newkome, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school. Newkome adds that the program, introduced in 2006, is a key component of UA’s role as the research university of Northeast Ohio.

Partnerships blooming

Industry sees the promise of such training as well. Ben Venue Labs Inc., a pharmaceutical products company, and Enviroscience Inc., an environmental consulting firm, are each co-sponsoring the training of doctoral students in UA’s integrated bioscience program.  

Likewise, UA’s integrated bioscience program faculty members take an active role in the Entrepreneurs for Sustainability (E4S) Network, which brings together entrepreneurial leaders and change agents, from various sectors, who are implementing sustainable business practices for Northeast Ohio.

More partnerships are forming, laying the foundation for new kinds of training that not only create knowledge, but also opportunities and jobs for the emerging high-tech economy of Northeast Ohio.

Media contact: Denise Henry, 330-972-6477 or