“Have you ever successfully put on a Band-Aid when your skin is wet?” That’s how UC Santa Barbara chemical engineering grad student George Degen kicked off his TED-style talk at the university’s recent Grad Slam competition, which pitted 80 young researchers against one another for cash prizes. Degen walked away with the win and a $5,000 check for his three-minute presentation on how the stickiness of ocean-dwelling muscles could improve surgical adhesives.
While stitches are able to suture most wounds, Degen explained, they don’t work well on delicate tissue (during fetal surgery, for instance) or deep within the wet environment of the body. So he studied how mussels adhere themselves to rocks and found something interesting. When a mussel comes across a surface it wants to attach to, it spits out a liquid protein mixture that hardens into an adhesive plaque and connects to its body with a thin thread. The mussel creates a number of these plaque-thread attachments, which act as shock absorbers and prevent it from getting ripped away by waves or currents. Degen is specifically studying the interface between the protein mix and the rock.
“I’m excited,” Degen said of his win. “We do great research here, and I think that the work related to marine biology is really strong at UCSB. I’m excited to spread it.” Runners-up Taylor Heisley-Cook and Zachary Reitz talked about sustainable fashion made from cannabis waste and strategies for future antibiotics, respectively.