Twenty-one thousand, three-hundred ninety-five. That’s the difference between Kyle Lampe, the English literature scholar and Kyle Lampe, the chemical engineer. That number is the difference in enrollment between Iowa State University (26,110) and Missouri S&T (4,715) when Lampe started college in 1999.
Bigger was not better for Lampe, who earned a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering at Missouri S&T in 2004, and now is an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Virginia.
“I didn’t want to go to Iowa State because it was just too big,” says Lampe, who grew up in Clarinda, Iowa – a town of 5,806. “I felt like I would get lost there.
“When I went to Rolla, it was the right size school. I didn’t know anybody, but I got to know a lot of people, and the professors knew your name. When I got to Rolla … everybody was on equal footing. Nerdy was cool.”
These days, Lampe leads his own “nerdy” engineering students in cutting-edge research that may one day lead to cures or treatments for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and people who have suffered a stroke or a spinal cord injury. The work is done through the Lampe Biomaterials Group, which launched at U.Va. in 2014.
There, Lampe is using synthetic polymer materials to encapsulate oligodendrocytes in a 3-D hydrogel that simulates properties of the brain. Oligodendrocytes are cells with many branches that support and insulate axons in the central nervous system by wrapping the axons in a myelin sheath. In people with MS, Lampe says, the oligodendrocytes go haywire. Finding a way to target or replace the malfunctioning oligodendrocytes could lead to a treatment.
For people who have suffered a stroke — the second-leading cause of death worldwide — treatments such as transplanting neural stem cells are ineffective, Lampe says, because 95 percent of those cells die within a week. Using a new biodegradable polymer hydrogel might be more effective because as they erode, they scavenge free radicals, thus acting like an antioxidant in the brain. Being able to place the slowly released antioxidants in a specific site of injury could help limit a stroke’s damage, Lampe says.
It’s the kind of work Lampe was — well, maybe not born to do, but it’s his life’s work now.
“I knew I was interested in engineering and science, the STEM disciplines,” says Lampe, who saw one of his older brothers, Paul, graduate from S&T in 1990 with an electrical engineering degree.
Kyle credits his advisor, Oliver Sitton, associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering, with igniting his spark for research. With Dave Westenberg, associate professor of biological sciences, he dove into research.
“When you meet him, you know he’s going to be successful,” says Westenberg while leafing through Lampe’s old research notebook. “He picks up what he learned, and he works hard to put his own stamp on it.”
From Rolla, Lampe went to the University of Colorado Boulder for his Ph.D. in chemical engineering. After five years at Colorado, Lampe worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University for three years to prepare for a research-intensive faculty position.
He has no problem with motivation.
“The thing I’m most excited about … the thing that gets me up is working with students,” Lampe says. “The fun part is, it’s different every day. There’s always something new and exciting.”
At S&T, he kept busy, not just with coursework. He was a resident assistant for two years at Thomas Jefferson Residence Hall, and then was the head RA at the Quad. He also acted in nine plays and musicals, including My Three Angels, The Foreigner, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, and Camelot.
And he met his wife of eight years, Lisa Hartman Lampe, who earned her bachelor of science degree in applied mathematics from S&T in 2004. Lampe also works at Virginia as the director of undergraduate success in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
For Kyle, everything that has followed started at S&T.
“Obviously, I got my initial training in how to approach research not from a lecture course, but with an approach toward getting the students to ask the questions,” Lampe said. “Moreover, I found this trait in many of the leaders at (S&T); students were really imbued with the authority to do things. We got the direction and support we needed and often failed. But that was part of it. As an RA, we had a lot of training, but the learning was a process, never complete.
“Honestly, though, I would say the most lasting impact of my time in Rolla was that I met and wooed my wife, who is my partner in intellectual, social and personal challenges every day.”
By Joe McCune