Colorado State University Professor Wins Prestigious NSF CAREER Award to Model How Cells Respond to Topography

Note to Reporters: Photos of Ashok Prasad are available with the news release at

A Colorado State University chemical and biological engineering professor has been awarded a $400,000, five-year National Science Foundation CAREER grant to study how stem cells respond to the geometry and topography of their environment.

Professor Ashok Prasad will use mathematical and computational modeling to understand how these physical cues can direct stem cell differentiation into different cell types. He will develop models that improve understanding of cells and how they renew themselves, particularly when they begin to form bone.

“If we understood the details of these processes, we could aid bone formation for fracture healing, help in prevention of heart disease and perhaps even help cancer therapeutics by manipulating mechanical signals,” Prasad said.

Specifically, he will investigate why a type of stem cell called mesenchymal stem cells show dramatic differences in shape when they’re on different platforms or substrates, especially nano-pillared surfaces, and why they then transform into different cell types.

“The effect is really dramatic,” Prasad said. “In experiments that my former student Dustin Berger carried out in a colleague’s laboratory we’ve seen cells that stretch out to become 500 microns in length. That is half a millimeter in size. Those cells then have spontaneously transformed into bone-forming cells.”

Breast cancer cells are one type of cell that appears to respond to the stiffness of these platforms where the cells sit, known as extra-cellular matrices.

“There appears to be a feedback between the mechanical properties of the extra-cellular matrix and the properties of the cell,” Prasad said. “This is especially important in cells that differentiate, or change phenotype such as stem cells or cancer cells. Mechanical signals that cells receive from their environment are increasingly being recognized as extremely important for human health.”

Prasad’s laboratory will develop mathematical models of the cellular response to the mechanical environment that will be then tested out in the laboratories of collaborators in CSU and elsewhere. His research forms part of the attempt to make quantitative predictive models for biological phenomena that could uncover the engineering principles behind life.

Prasad’s grant includes an educational component in collaboration with the Education and Outreach Center of the College of Natural Sciences to train K-12 science teachers and students. This involves introducing a modeling component in the ongoing Phunky Phrenology project, where students collect climate data by observing seasonal data on plants. Prasad will also develop simple computer models for students to use in their classes to understand the non-intuitive effects of feedback in the natural world. Feedback plays an important role in ecology, in biology and in all human engineered systems that have controls.

According to NSF, the Early CAREER Award is “the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.”

Prasad’s research includes building models for biomedical engineering in mammalian cells, synthetic biology in plant cells and bacteria, and metabolic engineering in cyanobacteria.

He completed his doctoral degree in physics from Brandeis University and later joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral researcher in the chemical engineering department. Previously, he taught economics at an undergraduate college in the University of Delhi, India. He has a master’s degree in economics and a bachelor’s degree in physics, both from the University of Delhi. He joined Colorado State in early 2009.