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Sombers wins NSF CAREER Award

Leslie Sombers

Leslie Sombers, assistant professor of chemistry at NC State University, has received an Early Career Development Award, more commonly known as a CAREER Award, from the National Science Foundation. The award is one of the highest honors given by NSF to early-career university faculty in science and engineering, and is intended to advance the development of their research and careers.

PAMS faculty have been extremely successful in recent years in competing for these awards, earning 22 CAREER Awards since 2004. The Department of Chemistry has been especially productive, with three CAREER Awards in 2012, alone, and seven in the last five years. Click here for a complete list of PAMS CAREER Award winners since 2004.

Sombers’ five-year, $600,000 grant will fund research related to her proposal, titled “Novel Voltammetric Biosensor Design to Promote Interest and Inquiry-Based Learning in Electrochemistry.”

Through this work, Sombers seeks to develop an entirely new breed of biosensors that will provide faster and more precise measurements of chemical activity in the brain and other biological tissues. Sombers and her team will achieve these goals by using a voltammetric approach – as opposed to the more conventional amperometric approach – to monitor the enzymatic generation of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) in tissue.

The voltammetric approach is revolutionary because it offers selectivity, allowing for highly sensitive and location-specific biosensing in live tissue in real time.

“These are carbon fiber sensors that can read the voltammetric ‘signature’ of the analyte through the noise of interferents,” Sombers says. “By not having to add layer after layer of chemically selective coatings to eliminate those interferents, we are able to make measurements in a matter of milliseconds rather than over tens of seconds.”

In addition to opening up the wonders of chemical signaling in the brain to basic scientists around the world, continued advancement of this technology addresses a growing need in industries from medicine and environmental monitoring to security and military biodefense.

Sombers also hopes to use this work to engage future generations of scientists. A component of her grant will allow her team to develop K-12 educational and outreach programs in partnership with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and The Science House.

“While the science and the skills required to do this type of work are going to continue to be in great demand, they can also be very intimidating to young learners,” Sombers says. “We will develop demonstrations and hands-on activities to familiarize students with some of the fundamentals of analytical chemistry, electrochemistry, electronics and neuroscience, and then make those activities available to museums and schools elsewhere in the country.”

About Leslie Sombers

Leslie Sombers earned her B.S. and M.A. degrees from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Pennsylvania State University. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill with R. Mark Wightman before joining the NC State faculty in 2008.

For more information, please visit the Sombers Lab Website.