Mechanical engineering professor to forge frontier of biomolecular computing

Erin Cassidy Hendrick
September 10, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Joseph Najem has joined the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering as an assistant professor, where he will continue his work researching and developing multifunctional biomolecular materials. 

“My inspiration comes from all around us,” he said. “As humans, we are already made of very smart materials that are very complex.”

He said, “The ability of next-generation computing devices, robots and machines to autonomously sense, process, learn and act in complex and dynamic environments—while consuming very little power—will require materials that are inherently brain-like.”

This poses an extraordinary challenge, one that Najem is excited to continue exploring. These smart materials are critical to create the computing hardware needed to accompany other cutting-edge technology like robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. 

“It’s a no-brainer for me,” Najem said. “We are starting to build software to mimic brains, but why are we building artificial synapses using inorganic, solid-state materials, when we can use actual biological materials that could possibly operate at the same time scale and power consumption levels as the brain?” 

Therefore, his primary goal is to develop two-terminal synthetic synapses and neurons, known to be responsible for computation and memory in the brain, such as lipid bilayers embedded with voltage-activated ion channels, to complement or possibly replace silicon-based materials. 

His work in this area has been published by several high-profile journals, including the American Chemical Society’s ACS Nano and Nature Communications. Building on these successes, he plans to investigate new types of biomolecules for this purpose, such as monazomycin. His previous research has shown it is able to emulate short-term synaptic plasticity in a more sophisticated way than other materials. 

Najem’s ultimate goal is to create autonomic biomolecular materials that have the ability to sense, actuate, communicate, and compute similar to how a human would. For instance, when a person’s retina dilates or constricts based on the light in their environment, the brain—specifically the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—is processing the information relatively  quickly and executing an unconscious, biological response. 

“These smart materials would also be able to operate at the ultra-low voltage levels that brains do,” he said. “Ideally, it would also be able to figure out what is important information and what is ‘old news’, like synapses in our brains do every second. If we can get to a point where you have materials like that in robots or other devices, that would be tremendous.” 

Originally from Lebanon, Najem earned his doctoral and master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech. He most recently completed a postdoctoral position shared between the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

In addition to expanding his research, Najem hopes to draw a clear parallel for his students between the material they learn in the classroom and its tangible application. 

“I don’t like just walking up to a blackboard and writing equations,” he said. “I want my students to understand it’s not just about getting an ‘A’ in the class but realizing how the material links to a real-world problem and how this information will help them in the future, whether they enter industry or academia.”

Since arriving at Penn State, he has also been eager to partner with the University’s outstanding research facilities and laboratories, including the Materials Research Institute and the Huck Institutes for Life Sciences.  

“These institutes will also provide me access to a lot of great collaborations,” Najem said. “I feel so welcome in the department and am amazed by the mentoring program and the support provided to the faculty as well as the quality of the students. All of this convinced me that Penn State was the right place.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 10, 2019