Chemical engineer honored with national ‘Outstanding Young Investigator’ award


By Ashley J. WennersHerron

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Penn State, was selected to receive the American Chemical Society’s 2022 Unilever Award for Outstanding Young Investigator in Colloid & Surfactant Science. Sheikhi will accept the award and deliver a lecture related to his research at the 96th ACS Colloid and Surface Science Symposium, which will take place July 10-13 in Golden, Colorado.  

Awarded annually, the Unilever Award was established in 2003 by Unilever Global to “recognize and encourage fundamental work in colloid or surfactant science carried out in North America by researchers in the early stages of their careers,” according to the award website. Recipients must be within seven years of receiving their doctorate, and special consideration is given to the “originality and creativity of the work and to its potential impact.”  

Sheikhi has been recognized for his work investigating and applying hairy nanocolloids and modular colloidal or granular gels. Hairy nanocolloids are a class of nanomaterials engineered to have high numbers of “hairs” made of polymer chains extending out. Sheikhi applies such nanomaterials in a wide variety of uses, including capturing off-target drugs and salvaging rare earth metals from electronic waste. Modular hydrogels are assembled from nano- and/or microparticles and mimic the structure of native tissues, serving as regenerative scaffolds to accelerate wound healing by supporting the formation of blood vessels and nerves. Sheikhi is developing an injectable form of this material, called granular hydrogels, to promote tissue repair and improve stroke recovery.  

“Dr. Sheikhi is a superstar in the field of colloid and surface science, running a lab focusing on the micro- and nanoengineering of natural or semi-natural polymers to develop biomimetic soft matter with tailored structure-property relationships,” said Darrell Velegol, distinguished professor of chemical engineering, who nominated Sheikhi for the award. “His work is interdisciplinary and at the intersection of materials and medicine. This is an extremely competitive award, and this is a big win for Dr. Sheikhi and for our department. We are very proud to have him on our faculty!”  

Velegol also noted that beyond Sheikhi’s research accomplishments, Sheikhi is also a caring teacher and adviser dedicated to preparing his students to become “amazing” leaders in the field. He currently oversees 10 graduate students, one post-doctoral researcher and more than 15 undergraduate researchers in the Bio-Soft Materials Laboratory, which he founded in 2019.  

“I am extremely excited and humbled to receive this recognition and would like to thank the selection committee members, Unilever, my nominator and my recommenders,” Sheikhi said. “I believe that colloids hold great promise as enabling materials for addressing some of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. I am looking forward to further advancing the fundamental and applied bio-based colloids for improving the quality of life and sustaining the ecosystems.” 

Sheikhi is an active member of ACS, co-organizing and co-chairing several sessions for various meetings and conferences, as well as serving as a peer reviewer for several ACS journals. He has published more than 60 papers and has filed 12 patents. He received the John C. Chen Young Professional Leadership Scholarship and the UNIFOR Global Research Fellowship, among several other awards. He was also named to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ 35 Under 35 list, as well as recognized in AICHE’s Bioengineering & Translational Medicine journal as one of nine emerging leaders in chemical and biomedical engineering across the globe.  


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