Montana State University

MSU researcher receives NSF’s top award for young scientists

April 28, 2015 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Jim Wilking, recipient of an NSF Young Investigator CAREER Award, studies images on a confocal microscope in MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

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BOZEMAN – A Montana State University scientist who researches the slimy communities known as biofilms has received the National Science Foundation’s top award for young scientists.

The Young Investigator CAREER Award gives Jim Wilking $503,396 over five years to investigate the physical and material properties of biofilms, the mechanics of soft materials and other topics related to the clumping together of microorganisms. He will also use the award to develop teaching modules for after-school programs across Montana.

“I’m thrilled. It was completely unexpected, but awesome,” said Wilking, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Center for Biofilm Engineering.

Jeffrey Heys, head of the chemical and biological engineering department, praised Wilking’s groundbreaking research. He added that the award is a “huge affirmation of the quality of research being conducted at MSU and in the Center for Biofilm Engineering.

“Jim’s pioneering work on the physics of soft materials is a critical interdisciplinary effort that combines physics, engineering, chemistry and mathematics, “ Heys continued. “The bridges being created by Jim’s work are helping researchers from all over the MSU campus to work together in new and exciting ways. The impact of Jim’s work will be felt in areas as diverse as medicine, paints, cosmetics, chemical processing and drug delivery.

“The entire chemical and engineering department is excited by the award being given to Jim,” Heys said. “It will impact our research efforts, teaching, outreach, undergraduate education and graduate education. The benefits of Jim’s research will be felt broadly in Montana.”

The Young Investigator CAREER Award is the NSF's most prestigious award to support early career development of teacher-scholars. Notable because it goes to a single person instead of a team, it honors outstanding scientists who haven't yet received tenure.

Among other things, Wilking said the award will allow him to see what happens when he uses physical forces to deform bacterial biofilm.

“Most bacteria do not exist as free swimming individuals, but instead on surfaces in soft, gel-like communities called biofilms,” he explained. “These films are implicated in a tremendous number of health and industrial problems such as hip implant infections and oil pipeline deterioration, but they also play beneficial roles in sewage treatment and agricultural plant protection. For both beneficial and problematic biofilms, knowledge of their mechanical response to physical forces is critically important, yet greatly lacking.

“My research project aims to address this knowledge gap by using micromechanical measurements to develop a fundamental, materials-based understanding of biofilm mechanics. These studies could lead to new materials-based strategies for biofilm removal, which are sorely needed.

“This project also aims to integrate soft materials science and biofilm science with food science, and to develop educational food science modules to attract students from rural communities in Montana and other sparsely populated states into STEM fields,” Wilking said. “Integrating microbial mat research from nearby Yellowstone National Park will provide the proposed work with international exposure.”

Wilking grew up in Collingswood, N.J., the son of a former minister and school teacher. Crediting his dad for his interest in science, Wilking said, “He’s not trained as a scientist, but thinks in a way that is equal parts curious and critical. A lot of conversations with him growing up started with, ‘Hey, do you want to hear something weird that I don’t understand?’”

Wilking paid his way through college by driving a truck and moving furniture. He earned a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemistry at Rutgers University and a doctorate in chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He knew nothing about biofilms until 2008 when he became a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, Wilking said. There he worked in the laboratory of David Weitz, one of the world’s most prominent physicists, and started researching the physics of biofilms. Wilking’s interest grew from there. He went on to publish a variety of papers and make presentations about biofilms.

One of his articles, for example, ran in the Materials Research Society Bulletin and described biofilms as complex fluids. It noted that understanding the mechanics of soft materials, such as toothpaste or gels, can provide valuable insight into the mechanics of biofilms. Biofilms, or slime, are microorganisms that stick together, forming communities on surfaces such as teeth, medical implants, sewage pipes and boat hulls.

“A general framework for understanding biofilm material properties is essential for both the removal of biofilms and the optimization of biofilm properties,” Wilking wrote.

At Harvard, he was also involved in a summer camp that combined science and cooking for kids, Wilking said. He would like to use part of his CAREER award to develop a similar program and make it available to after-school programs across Montana.

Wilking joined the MSU faculty in 2013. He was drawn to MSU because of the CBE’s international reputation, Wilking said. In fact, when he was at Harvard and trying to learn more about biofilms, he Googled the term, and the MSU center – 25 years old this year -- was one of the first references that appeared on his computer screen.

He also heard about MSU and the Bozeman area from Hilary Fabich of Livingston, who worked in Weitz’s lab during the summer of 2011. Fabich was an MSU undergraduate at the time, a Presidential Scholar and an outstanding musician majoring in engineering. She has since graduated from MSU and is using a scholarship she won from the Gates Foundation to pursue her doctorate at the University of Cambridge in England.

Wilking said Fabich is incredibly bright, and he thought if MSU could produce that kind of student, he could see himself working at MSU. Then Fabich helped arrange for Wilking to give a lecture at MSU.

During his subsequent visit, Wilking met several MSU faculty members. Among them were Fabich’s mentors -- professor Sarah Codd in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and professor Joseph Seymour in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Wilking’s wife, Connie Chang -- now an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Center for Biofilm Engineering -- already knew MSU virologist Mark Young and Trevor Douglas, who was an MSU virologist at the time. Then Wilking went hiking in the Gallatin Valley and saw the potential for rock climbing.

“I fell in love with the place,” Wilking said.

In an email from England, Fabich said, “I’m always happy to tell people about how wonderful Bozeman and MSU are, and I knew Jim would fit into the local environment. I was so excited to hear that he and Connie were moving to Bozeman and, though I can’t say I’m surprised, I’m very happy to hear that everything is continuing to go well and he has been awarded the CAREER grant.”

MSU received its first Young Investigator CAREER Award 20 year ago, with the initial award going to Tim McDermott in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. MSU scientists who research everything from black holes to wireless technology and the early development of the brain have won the award since then.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or