Christopher Yakacki, assistant professor, College of Engineering and Applied Science, Department of Mechanical Engineering, is a 2014 National Science Foundation CAREER Award winner.

Yakacki’s CAREER award project, “A Two-Stage Processing Approach to Shape-Switching Liquid-Crystalline Elastomers for Biomedical Applications,” is a five-year investigation into the development of a reaction mechanism to tailor and manufacture liquid-crystalline elastomers for biomedical applications.

Liquid-crystalline elastomers (LCEs) are a class of smart polymers that can repeatedly change shape and optical properties in response to a stimulus, such as heat or light. Traditionally, LCEs have been difficult to synthesize and manufacture for applications, such as biomedical devices.

The CAREER award will support Yakacki’s work to investigate a new approach and reaction mechanism to tailor and manufacture these materials for biomedical applications, specifically shape-changing biomedical devices.

Shape-changing biomedical devices promote minimally invasive surgery. Devices can be compacted to a small geometry, inserted through a small incision, and deployed once in the body. Many medical devices are left in place permanently, however, some devices need to be adjusted over time or even removed. LCEs offer the opportunity to have the device return to its compacted shape for easier removal.

Because of the soft nature of the material and its unique optical properties, Yakacki will use this award to continue his work with Malik Kahook and the Department of Ophthalmology in the University of Colorado School of Medicine to develop new ophthalmic LCE devices.

Yakacki said this CAREER award also will support summer, hands-on workshops for local high school students, addressing how smart polymers can be used in biomedical applications.

Using this new technology, Yakacki will apply his teaching and industry experience to design and develop interference devices for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, which also illustrates how mechanical engineering, materials science, and bioengineering can all combine.

Yakacki hopes to show that engineering isn’t a confined area of study, and that while there are individual degree programs, engineers often solve problems using an interdisciplinary approach.

Through this experience, Yakacki wants “to give students a better look at how a college education can lead to unique, real-world opportunities and experiences.”

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers 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. Such activities are expected to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

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Yakacki also recently received an R21 award from the National Institutes of Health, and was named the 2014 CU Denver New Inventor of the Year by the University of Colorado Technology Transfer Office.

More background
Yakacki received his BS, MS and PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Colorado-Boulder. After graduating, he co-founded MedShape, Inc., an orthopedic device company that utilizes proprietary shape-memory technology to design medical devices. At MedShape, Yakacki served as the principal scientist, and he received more than $1 million in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards to develop shape-memory polymer devices.

Yakacki joined the University of Colorado Denver Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2012 and has since established the Smart Materials and Biomechanics Lab. He engages in research that spans both CU Denver and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus; his long-term goals are to build a world-class research lab at CU Denver investigating how smart polymer systems can be used in medical devices.

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