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For MacGyver, a Swiss Army knife and duct tape were enough to solve any problem. Extinguishing an inferno in an oil well? Done. Thwarting an angry drug lord? No sweat. Outwitting an escaped — and psychotic — convict? Piece of cake.
For David Neivandt, research isn’t exactly the stuff of prime-time TV drama. There’s no dynamite to defuse, no kidnapped journalists to free. But the chemical and biological engineer does have a bit of MacGyver in him. Which is why he has become one of the most popular go-to guys whenever someone at the University of Maine needs an innovative solution to an unusual science-related problem.
Neivandt’s primary research focuses on the transport of certain proteins linked to cancer and other diseases across cell membranes. If Neivandt and his colleagues can better understand that movement, there is the potential to design therapeutics. You’d think searching for a cure for cancer would be enough to satisfy his curiosity. But you’d be wrong.
Since he arrived at UMaine in 2001, Neivandt has earned a reputation on campus for finding brilliant — often simple — answers to complex questions, many outside his discipline: How can we improve the survival rate for larval lobsters? How can we create a biodegradable golf ball using crushed lobster shells? How can we turn a by-product of the papermaking process into prized — and pricey — carbon nanofibers?
“On the surface, these all look extremely disparate,” Neivandt says. “But actually, there are similarities. A lot of things come down to surface chemistry — manipulating materials and processes to get a specific result. Surface chemistry applies to everything from cosmetics to biological applications. Anytime there’s an interface, there’s chemistry going on.”
But there’s also something else going on — something that goes beyond chemistry or engineering or biological processes. For Neivandt, research is a way of life. That quest for answers, for discovering something new every day, is what drives his work.
“What I love about engineering is the ability to solve problems people haven’t attempted to solve before or to solve them in a different way, in a way that might be more effective or more elegant,” he says.