Dr. Walter Voit, a University of Texas at Dallas assistant professor of materials science and engineering and mechanical engineering, has been awarded $1 million to create medical devices that will lead to greater control of prosthetics in wounded soldiers.
Dr. Voit is one of 25 junior faculty members in the country selected to receive a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award. DARPA is an agency of the United States Department of Defense established in 1958, that is responsible for development of new technologies for use by the military. To fulfill its mission, DARPA relies on diverse performers to apply multi-disciplinary approaches to both advance knowledge through basic research and create innovative technologies that address current practical problems through applied research.
Current prosthetics and other implantable medical devices often fail within a year because tissue separates from the device. This can cause bleeding and scar tissue, which ultimately can prevent the device from stimulating the targeted nerve. The devices are also too large to operate with tissues as small as specific nerves.
Dr. Voit has created shape memory polymers – materials that can respond to the body’s environment and become less rigid when implanted in the body. These polymers are implanted when they’re rigid and then flex toward the stiffness of the tissue. Dr. Voit’s proposal calls for using these polymers in the microfabrication process known as photolithography to create medical devices that will survive implantation in the body for more than one year.
“A chronically-stable interface with the body’s nervous system is necessary to couple partial sensory sensation in prosthetics with motor control,” says Dr. Voit in a UT Dallas release. “This problem will not be solved entirely by a team of materials scientists. However, we believe that an eventual successful device for chronic microstimulation will be based on combining a range of thin-film and polymeric materials that are compatible with reliable microfabrication techniques. In our experience, this platform for device fabrication allows for the flexibility required to meet the demands of the electrophysiologist and surgeon, while surviving the aggressive mechanical and chemical environment of the nervous system.”
“Dr. Voit is a pioneer in our department by developing materials for critical medical applications,” says Dr. Yves Chabal, holder of the Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in Nanoelectronics and head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. “This award underscores the importance of the technology and his leading role in the field.”
Walter Everett Voit was born in Cologne, Germany on August 26, 1982, and grew up in Ann Arbor, MI and Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. He attended Wando High School where he lettered in soccer. captained the Quiz Bowl team, and graduated valedictorian. He hadn’t even heard of UT Dallas when he first began considering his college choices. “They asked me to visit, but I definitely wasn’t interested,” he says. Voit was recruited to the 2001 inaugural class of Eugene McDermott Scholars, a prestigious and highly competitive scholarship program for top incoming students from across the country. He spent two summers as an intern at Los Alamos National Labs as a computer scientist performing research in global grid computing for ocean modeling applications and bandwidth monitoring of the Linux kernel. He also worked for two and half years with Dallas nanotechnology startup company Zyvex, where he helped build custom scripts in python, C++, OpenGL, html and other languages and toolkits to manipulate precision instruments and visualize 3D MEMS constructions.
After receiving a B.S. in Computer Science in May 2005 and a Masters in Artificial Intelligence from UT Dallas in August 2006, Voit then pursued a PhD in Materials Science at Georgia Tech. His research there led to creation of his own company, Syzygy Memory Plastics, which uses polymer science to design and manufacture custom plastic products, deformable electronics, and dynamic components, in December 2007. He has authored papers in top materials journals, is lead inventor on several patents and has helped secure over $400,000 of funding as a graduate student for his lab at Georgia Tech and for his company. He was named a Presidential Scholar at Georgia Tech and was selected to the prestigious TI:GER program, which is a partnership with the College of Management and Emory Law School.
Dr. Voit now works in the Jonsson School as an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering. “I had offers from other universities, but I came back to Texas because UT Dallas is committed to encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship,” he notes. At UT Dallas, Dr. Voit is also a researcher in the Texas Biomedical Device Center.
His company received a Phase II NSF SBIR in August 2010 on which UT Dallas was a subawardee. Prof. Voit was appointed treasurer and to the executive board of the Council of Ionizing Radiation Measurement Standards (CIRMS), and chaired a materials processing symposium at TMS in 2010. Prof. Voit received accolades for the most technically relevant presentation at the 9th Annual Ionizing Radiation and Polymers (IRaP) in 2010 and was awarded a feature presentation at the International Meeting on Radiation Processing (IMRP) 2011 in Montreal. Dr. Voit has been invited on an expert mission (May 2011) by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Atomic Energy Research Institute at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, and has given invited lectures at Texas A&M University, Lawrence Livermore National Labs, Georgia Tech and Princeton University. Dr. Voit also consults with TriQuint.
The objective of DARPA’s Young Faculty Award (YFA) program is to identify and engage rising research stars in junior faculty positions at U.S. academic institutions and expose them to Defense Department needs and DARPA’s program development process. The YFA program, initiated in 2006, provides funding, mentoring, and industry and DoD contacts to these faculty members early in their careers to develop their research ideas in the context of DoD needs. The program focuses on untenured faculty, emphasizing those without prior DARPA funding. The long-term goal of YFA is to develop the next generation of academic scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in key disciplines who will focus a significant portion of their career on DoD and National Security issues.
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DARPA YFA’s technical areas of interest include electronics, photonics, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), architectures, and algorithms. The program was expanded in 2009 and again in 2010 to address additional DARPA core research areas. Current YFA efforts are 2 years in duration with approximately $150,000 per year for projects. Each YFA is assigned a DARPA program manager who is closely aligned with their technical interests. A YFA highlight is DARPA-sponsored military visits. All YFA recipients are expected to participate in one or more military site visits or exercises to help them better understand DoD. In its relatively short history, YFA has funded nearly 100 up-and-coming junior faculty members, many of whom have also become engaged with DARPA and DoD in other programs.
DARPA’s scientific investigations span the gamut from laboratory efforts to the creation of full-scale technology demonstrations in the fields of biology, medicine, computer science, chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, material sciences, social sciences, neurosciences and more. As the DoD’s primary innovation engine, DARPA’s long-term goal is to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers who will focus their careers and research on Department of Defense and national security issues. More than 200 junior faculty applied to receive part of the more than $12 million awarded in 2013.
As part of the three-year grant, Dr. Voit will receive mentoring and build relationships with industry and Department of Defense contacts to develop his research in the context of DOD needs. Other applications of the work from Voit’s DARPA Young Faculty Award include treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as tinnitus, epilepsy, stroke and Parkinson’s.
“This award is as a much a tribute to the mentoring, facilities and environment at an institution that gives young faculty the opportunity to attempt to tackle interesting problems,” Dr. Voit observes. “The investments UT Dallas has made in the Materials Science and Engineering Department, the Mechanical Engineering Department, the Bioengineering Department and the cleanroom facility,re foundational pillars that allowed me to be confident in proposing the neural research that DARPA has chosen to fund.”
The University of Texas at Dallas
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
The University of Texas at Dallas