President Obama honors researcher Jeffrey Capadona with Presidential Early Career Award

President Barack Obama Monday named biomedical engineering faculty member Jeffrey R. Capadona one of the nation’s 96 most promising young scientists for his pioneering work in bridging connections between artificial implants and the human body.

Capadona, a biomedical engineering associate professor and a research health scientist at the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veteran’s Administration Medical Center, was humbled by the news and quickly credited to his mentors, co-workers and students.

“I do not feel deserving. There are so many great researchers, doing incredible work, that I am honored to be considered for recognition of my small part,” Capadona said, then added that he did take some pleasure in the news. “This award tells me that my ideas aren’t all crazy.”

The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) is the highest honor the U.S. government bestows upon promising scholars beginning their careers.

“Dr. Capadona’s PECASE Award is a tremendous testament to Case Western Reserve University’s School of Engineering’s talented faculty and provides great recognition to our recent and ongoing faculty hiring initiative that is committed to bringing the best and brightest minds to our faculty ranks,” said Case School of Engineering Dean Jeffrey Duerk. “Jeff’s research brings together our expertise in biomedical engineering with our initiatives in advanced materials in unique ways, to provide benefits to patients with neurologic diseases and injuries.”

Case Western Reserve faculty and colleagues at the Veteran’s Administration nominated Capadona for the presidential award. The group lauded him for his ability to merge the disciplines of biology and engineering to help restore those injured by war, accidents and disease. They also described him as conscientious and hard working, creative and dedicated, unassuming and a team player.

In addition, the nominators cited Capadona for his work to help develop a fabrication technique that produces materials that change from rigid to flexible and vice-versa, depending on cues from the environment. Inspiration for the breakthrough came from the sea cucumber, which turns from pliable to hard when touched.

“Capadona’s development of this revolutionary class of biologically inspired polymer nanocomposites will enable the pursuit of a wide range of biomedical devices that will positively impact Veteran health care in profound and important ways,” the nominating panel wrote in a letter to the White House. They pointed to the materials uses in probes and implants that record activity and stimulate nerves in the brain and elsewhere in the body, and to link the human brain to machines and artificial joints and prosthetic sockets to the body.

Capadona said he shares credit for the award with many, including mentors he’s had at the university: biomedical engineering associate professor Dustin Tyler and professor Stuart Rowan and former professor Christoph Weder, of the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering.

“Ron Triolo, director of the VA, Advanced Platform Technology Center, and Andres Garcia, my PhD adviser at Georgia Tech—they have to be at the top of that list,” he said. “And of course, all of my incredible students for doing the work!”

The chemist and material scientist joined the engineering school’s faculty in 2010 and studies the nervous system’s response to implanted medical devices.

“Within the nervous system, there are so many crippling diseases or injuries where medical devices can be life altering and/or saving,” Capadona said. “Unfortunately, most of the technologies are limited by the body’s reaction to the implant. The devices fail quickly and repeated surgeries or revisions are needed. … My goal is to enable the technologies of the brilliant people who came before me.”

Researchers will receive their awards during a ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on Tuesday, July 31. They and their families will participate in a tour of the East Wing of the White House on Wednesday, August 1.

Campus records show that Capadona is the second Case Western Reserve professor to receive the award while on the university faculty. Suchitra Nelson, professor of community dentistry at the Case School of Dental Medicine, won the Presidential Award in 2007.