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Cellular reception

New ChBE professor brings life to statistical mechanics -- and vice versa

Associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Javier Buceta is a firm believer in fostering student-professor interaction, both inside and outside the classroom. Although his focus is on sharing his passion for science, he’s not opposed to throwing in a little science fiction for good measure.

"My team is engaged in quite a bit of work related to biomechanical properties of living matter," he says. "One of the things we do is develop computational codes to simulate the behavior of tissues. We are interested in how biomechanical properties of the cells are actually shaping the pattern."

In his lab, Javier works with students to understand the mechanics of life – from bacterial division, to human developmental processes such as the formation of limbs in the womb, to the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

According to Dr. Buceta, the problem of human limb formation can be addressed when the limb and the embryo are developing.

“The public health system spends a lot of money every year on issues related to limb formation,” says Javier. “There are main processes at the cellular level when the limb is very small – on the order of 1mm -- but the pattern is already in place.”

At that scale, he says, the dynamics of the cell are crucial, because the process of division can potentially change the pattern.

“One cell divides into two, and between them they must determine the ‘new’ function each is to serve,” he explains. “In many ways, this process determines the development of the child.”

“We are coupling this problem with cellular biomechanics,” he reports. “A cell has to grow, it has to shrink, it has to stretch. This requires an understanding of the forces at the cellular level and we try to understand how they impact pattern development.”

Javier received his Ph.D. in Physics in Madrid. He then moved to University of California San Diego, where he developed interest in translating his field, statistical mechanics, into a deeper understanding of biological processes.

At UCSD, he recalls, he was working on connecting an outbreak of the so-called Hanta virus with the occurrence of sudden climate change.

“When the Ebola outbreak began, I was reading what was known about the dynamics of the actual carriers of the virus, the bats,” he recalls. “And actually there are not so many studies about the dynamics of the bats. Also, there were few studies relating climate change with Ebola outbreaks. So we’re seeking to recover that research, and develop models that would explain the dynamics of the bats in Africa.”

Buceta cares deeply about professor-student relationships and believes that the best learning does not have to be limited within the classroom. Since the beginning of the year he has been organizing a science fiction film series for Lehigh students. The series consists of different science fiction films, followed by a speaker who leads an open discussion on bioethical issues explored in the movie.

“I love science fiction,” he says, “so I decided to leverage this passion into new and different learning opportunities for students; it’s also a great way for us to get to know each other a bit outside the lab, and the class.” According to Javier, the Lehigh Film Series "Science Fiction?" raises questions and provokes discussion about science, bioethics, diversity, inclusion, and equity problems using science fiction movies as a vehicle. Further information about tickets and upcoming shows can be found at lehighsciencefiction.thesimbiosys.com.

-Brenda Martinez '15 is a journalism student interning with the Dean’s Office of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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