Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New Faculty Profile: Petia Vlahovska

Petia Vlahovska is likely one of the few scientists who can say that she earned a nickname simply by trying to explain what she does. While at Dartmouth, she had distilled her explanation of studying complex fluids to saying she researched chocolate.

“Ever since, when I was on campus, some would say there is the Chocolate Lady,” she said.

While the description remains accurate, the nickname hardly does justice to the research horizons that Vlahovska, assistant professor of engineering, brought to Brown this fall.

Vlahovska is interested in complex fluids, a range of common items from paint to shampoo — and chocolate. She’s also interested in living substances such as blood or the membranes that surround cells and cellular organelles. She wants to determine how all these materials respond to flow or electrical fields.

She is keen on a project to punch nanopores in human cells using electrical pulses. The pursuit is no cheap engineering thrill: The holes, which can be as small as one-billionth of a meter across, can have major implications for medicine, such as delivering drugs directly to cancerous cells without affecting healthy ones.

“The key point is the pores have to form reversibly. You zap the cell, the pore opens, and then it has to close itself,” she said. “It’s a very well-known biological tool, initially developed for gene transfer,” Vlahovska said, “but it’s poorly understood how to control it.”

Vlahovska plans to collaborate with engineering professors Kenny Breuer, Thomas Powers and Anubhav Tripathi, as well as with Derek Stein in physics, on various problems that fuse biology, physics, chemistry and engineering.

“I’m technically an engineer but I consider myself all over the place,” Vlahovska said.

Vlahovska, 38, grew up in northern Bulgaria in a family of engineers, including her mother, father, brother and uncle. She attended college in the country’s capital, Sofia, and earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Yale University. Last year, she received a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Program award from the National Science Foundation.

From 2003 to 2005, Vlahovska was a visiting faculty member in engineering at Brown. Seeking a tenure-track position, she moved to Dartmouth. She is returning to Brown now with tenure eligibillity solidly intact.

“Let’s say I always wanted to come back, my [Brown] colleagues wanted me to come back, and so it’s good,” she said.

- By Richard C. Lewis