Jonathan Pruitt, an assistant prof of behavioral ecology at the University of Pittsburgh, has been named one of the Brilliant 10 by Popular Science magazine.
By Sophie Wodzak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Popular Science released its list of the “Brilliant 10” for 2015 — honoring the brightest young minds in science and engineering in the U.S. — and two are from Pittsburgh.
Jonathan Pruitt, 29, of Squirrel Hill, a behavioral ecologist at University of Pittsburgh, was tapped for his research into spider societies. He’s the youngest person on the list.
At Carnegie Mellon University, Kathryn Whitehead, assistant professor of chemical engineering, earned the honor for designing nanoparticles that treat disease by delivering therapeutic drugs to specific areas in the body.
Ms. Whitehead, 35, also of Squirrel Hill, has synthesized and tested nearly 5,000 nanoparticle delivery vehicles en route to identifying a few that can shuttle drugs into exactly the right cells. Her research has the potential of revolutionizing how doctors treat such diseases as cancer, diabetes and hereditary disorders.
Her team is now using nanoparticles to engineer therapies for illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease, chronic wounds and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Using nanotechnology is particularly helpful as an alternative to treatments such as chemotherapy, which comes with severe side effects. “In contrast, our targeted nanoparticles deliver drugs only to cancerous tissue, sparing healthy cells,” she said in a statement. “We expect these targeted treatments to extend the lives of cancer patients while increasing their quality of life through a reduction in side effects.”
Ms. Whitehead, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joined CMU in 2012.
Mr. Pruitt, meanwhile, sees complex characters begging for scientific analysis where others might see villains and monsters.
“Spiders are vilified because they’re quintessential predators,” Mr. Pruitt said in an interview Wednesday. “They can ensnare their prey, they have that low metabolism that lets them lurk around in the shadows, and of course they would be horrifying monsters if we were scaled down to their size. There’s plenty to be creeped out by.”
But like people, he said, spiders have individual personalities that affect the societies in which they live. Just as humans let their personalities dictate the jobs they choose, social spiders allow their personalities, and the innate aptitudes that come with them, to determine their role in the society. In order for a spider society to flourish, Mr. Pruitt said it’s important to have the right balance of personalities.
“If the group has the right mix, it can be very successful. But with the wrong mix, everyone dies. Extinction is inevitable,” he said.
To conduct his research he lives three months of the the year in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, spending hours crouched in various habitats, observing the social lives of colony-building spiders.
Mr. Pruitt, who also holds a Ph.D., said his work has larger implications beyond spider colonies.
“As humans, we want to circumvent extinction of our species, and of other endangered species, but we also seek to accelerate extinction in animals we consider pests. That idea that we can cause or prevent extinction, manipulate evolution, is one of the biggest challenges in evolutionary biology.”
Among the other Brilliant 10 are a chemical biologist from California who builds tissues in his lab that snap together like Legos, an astrophysicist at Columbia University who has developed a method to seek out exomoons and an electrical engineer in North Carolina who has built a cross-species communication system that enables humans and dogs to work together in search and rescue missions even when separated by rubble.
Sophie Wodzak: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1525. First Published September 23, 2015 12:37 PM
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