Nearly four years ago, when Angelica Du was a freshman, she recalled being completely “awestruck” upon walking into her first Scholarship Celebration.
“It’s just really warm,” the now-senior noted at this year’s event, which took place Wednesday, Nov. 20. “My donors have always been so warm with me.”
Du—with a smile that’s constant, as well as contagious—scanned the red-and-blue draped walls of the John R. Rockwell Gymnasium, completely transformed for the yearly event on campus, and eyed the appetizers being passed. She glanced at her proud mom, a few folks over. Hosted by the Undergraduate Named Scholarship Program, the Celebration is one that has grown to attract hundreds of scholarship donors and their recipients and families, for an evening of networking and good-old-fashioned catching up.
“[Angelica] tells me that she’s proud,” said Jerry Riesenbach, a Wharton School alumnus who helped support Du’s cost of education through the Class of 1960 scholarship fund. “And I said to her, she makes us proud. Being able to provide funds is one thing, but seeing the benefit that goes to these young people, who have such tremendous aspirations and are so grateful, is another.”
At Penn, Du, who will graduate with her bachelor’s in bioengineering in May and her master’s in December 2020, designs robots and conducts neurobiology research. She teaches thermodynamics and critical writing to her peers. She sings for a Disney-themed a cappella group, serves her community in a Christian union, celebrates her culture in the Penn Philippine Association, and advocates within several honor societies. This past summer, she worked at Thermo Fisher Scientific, running experiments for a next-generation sequencer that will take a patient’s DNA, sequence it, and diagnose it within 24 hours.
What originally drew me to this field was a “Women in Engineering Day” I attended at a local college while in high school. I had the opportunity to hear incredible women speak about their research regarding biomaterials and tissue engineering. This event showed me the impact this field can have on the world. This drove me to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering, which only strengthened my passion. As I furthered my studies and began working full-time at a biotechnology company, I learned more about bioengineering. With encouragement from my coworkers and family, I decided to pursue my Master’s in Bioengineering and am delighted to have the opportunity to study at Penn.
What kind of research do you conduct, and what do you hope to focus on for your thesis?
I am actually a part-time student, who works full-time at a drug packaging and medical device company out in Exton, PA. Though I am not doing research on campus, my coursework has tied into previous research projects I have participated in at my job. My latest project entailed understanding different material properties used in container closure systems for mAb-based biologics and how they interact. This work was done to support an understanding of how to pick appropriate vial/syringe systems for various drug products in development.
What’s your favorite thing to do on Penn’s campus or in Philly?
My favorite thing to do is trying all the new restaurants and incredible foods this city has to offer. I think Philadelphia is so unique and has such rich cultural influences. With so many different neighborhoods and restaurant options you really can’t go wrong.
What did you study for your undergraduate degree, how does it pair with the work you’re doing now, and what advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
My undergraduate degree was in Biomedical Engineering. It has supported my graduate coursework very well and has given me a great opportunity to dive deeper into certain parts of my studies.
My advice to my younger self would be to take your time! It took me a little while to evaluate different graduate programs and choose which was right for me. Though it took some time, I ultimately decided what was best for me and couldn’t be happier with my choices.
What are you thinking about doing after graduate school?
Currently, I work full-time as an Associate Packaging Engineer at West Pharmaceutical Services in Exton, PA. I hope to take my degree to further my career and to help support my future aspirations at this company.
As technology and hands-on activities continue to become a larger part of education at all levels, a new movement of do-it-yourself projects is on the rise. Known as the “MakerSpace Movement,” the idea is that with the use of devices like 3-D printers, laser cutters, and simple circuitry materials, students, classes and communities can apply topics discussed in the classroom to real-life projects. Especially popular among STEM educators, the MakerSpace Movement is one that’s taken over labs in engineering schools around the country. Here at Penn, our own Stephenson Foundation Bioengineering Educational Lab and Bio-MakerSpace is equipped with all of the tools needed to bring student designs to fruition. In particular, the Stephenson Lab is the only lab on Penn’s campus that is open to all students and has both mechanical and electrical rapid prototyping equipment, as well as tools for biological and chemistry work.
Though Penn helps to fund the lab’s operation, many of the technologies and materials used in the Stephenson Lab and Bio-MakerSpace to help students throughout different class and independent projects are actually relatively affordable. Sevile Mannickarottu, Director of the Educational Laboratories, recently presented a paper describing the innovations and opportunities available to students through the MakerSpace attributes of the lab.
The Stephenson Lab mostly looks to support bioengineering majors, particularly in their lab courses and seniors design projects, but also encourages students of all disciplines to use the space for whatever MakerSpace-inspired ideas they might have, whether it be fixing a bike or measuring EMG signals for use in a mechanical engineering design.
Believe it or not, however, some of the best parts of the Bio-MakerSpace can actually be purchased for a total of under $1500. Though that number is probably far beyond the individual budget of most students, it might be more affordable for a student club or dorm floor that receives additional funding from Penn. While the idea of building a MakerSpace from nothing might sound intimidating, the popularity of the movement actually helps to provide a wide range of technology and affordable options.
One of the hallmarks of the MakerSpace at the Stephenson Lab, and of any MakerSpace, is the 3-D printer. Certainly, the highest quality 3-D printers on the market are incredibly expensive, but the ones used in the Stephenson Lab are actually only $750 per printer. Even better, most spools of the PLA filaments used in printers like this one can be found online for under a price of $30 each. With access to free CAD-modeling services like OpenScad and SketchUp, all you need is a computer to start 3-D printing on your own.
But if you can’t afford a 3-D printer, or want to add more electric components to the plastic designs the printer can make, the Stephenson Lab also has NI myDAQ devices, external power sources, wires, resistors, voltage meters, Arduino kits, and other equipment that can all be purchased by students for less than $500.
The most expensive device is the NI myDAQ, which costs $200 for students, but $400 for everyone else. With access to software that includes a digital multimeter, oscilloscope, function generator, Bode analyzer, and several other applications, the myDAQ is essential to any project that involves data with electronic signals. But even without the myDAQ, components like breadboards, wire cutters, resistors, voltage regulators, and all of the other basic elements of circuitry can typically be found online for a total price of under $100.
The Stephenson Lab also provides students with Arduino Kits, which are a combination of hardware and software in circuitry and programming that can be purchased for under $100 from the Arduino website. With sensors, breadboards, and other essential circuit elements, the Arduino Kits also allow users to control their designs through a software code that corresponds to hands-on setup. Particularly for those new to understanding the relationship between codes and circuitry, an Arduino Kit can be a great place to start.
Using all of these items, you can easily start your own MakerSpace for under $1500, especially if you can take advantage of student pricing. At the heart of the MakerSpace movement is the notion that anyone, anywhere can bring their own ideas and innovations to reality with the right equipment. So if you have a project in mind, get started on building your own MakerSpace, with these tools or your own — it’s cheaper than you’d think!
Speaker: Sumita Pennathur, Ph.D.
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
University of California, Santa Barbara
Date: Thursday, November 21, 2019
Time: 12:00-1:00 pm
Location: Room 337, Towne Building
Title: “Nanofluidic Technologies for Biomolecule Manipulation”
In the last 20 years, microfabrication techniques have allowed researchers to miniaturize tools for a plethora of bioanalytical applications. In addition to better sensitivity, accuracy and precision, scaling down the size of bioanalytical tools has led to the exploitation of new technologies to further manipulate biomolecules in ways that has never before been achieved. For example, when microfluidic channels are on the same order of magnitude of the electric double layers that form due to localized charge at the surfaces, there exists unique physics that create different flow phenomenon, such as analyte concentration and/or separation, mainly due to the couples physics of electrostatics and fluid dynamics. This talk will outline the basis of such interesting phenomena, such as nanofluidic separation and concentration, and well as probe the applications of such coupled systems, for example, handheld DNA detection. Most importantly, we will focus on the most recent work in the Pennathur lab in this field — biopolar electrode (BPE)-based phenomenon. Bipolar electrodes (BPE) have been studied in microfluidic systems over the past few decades, and through rigorous experimentally-validated modeling of the rich combined physics of fluid dynamics, electrokinetics, and electrochemistry at BPEs, I will show the potential of utilizing microfluidic-based BPEs for the design and development of low power, accurate, low volume fluid pumping mechanisms, with the ultimate goal of integration into wearable drug delivery and µTAS systems.
Professor Pennathur has been a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of California, Santa Barbara in 2007, specializing in the fields of MEMS, nanofludics, and electrokinetics. Her most significant contributions include: 1) unearthing a novel mechanism for separation and concentration of analytes for bioanalytical applications, 2) developing a label-free detection mechanism for nucleic acids (that has since spun off into a point-of-care diagnostic company), 3) developing commercial medical diagnostic products, 4) building optical and acoustic biosensors and 5) developing revolutionized methods for measuring blood glucose for patients with diabetes. She received her B.S. and M.S. from MIT and PhD. From Stanford University.
Growing up in Sri Lanka and being surrounded by relatives who were doctors, I have been fascinated by both modern and traditional medicine. However, during physician shadowing in high school, I came to the realization that I was far more fascinated with the technology doctors use rather than practicing medicine. Therefore, I made the decision to turn down studying medicine in the U.K. and come to Penn to study Bioengineering in the hopes of being more hands-on with medical technology.
Have you done research with a professor on campus? What did you like, and what didn’t you like about it?
I currently work in the Interventional Radiology Lab at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) under Assistant Professor of Radiology Chamith Rajapakse. The best thing about research here is that I get to be hands-on with some of the most cutting edge technology in the world and help pioneer medical diagnostic techniques that aren’t traditionally being used anywhere else. The only downside is that the learning curve can be a little too steep.
What have been some of your favorite courses and/or projects in Bioengineering so far?
Without a doubt, my favorite BE class has to be BE 309 (Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis and Design Laboratory I) and especially the Computer-Cockroach Interface we have to develop for this lab.
What advice would you give to your freshman self?
There are way too many things happening at a given time at Penn. Take it easy and plan it out so you can do everything you want to! It’s totally possible. Who says you can’t work hard and play hard?!
What do you hope to pursue after obtaining your undergraduate degree?
My hope is to head my own health-tech startup and create technologies that will aid developing countries, starting out with my humble island of Sri Lanka first.
For almost any conceivable protein, corresponding antibodies can be developed to block it from binding or changing shape, which ultimately prevents it from carrying out its normal function. As such, scientists have looked to antibodies as a way of shutting down proteins inside cells for decades, but there is still no consistent way to get them past the cell membrane in meaningful numbers.
Now, Penn Engineering researchers have figured out a way for antibodies to hitch a ride with transfection agents, positively charged bubbles of fat that biologists routinely use to transport DNA and RNA into cells. These delivery vehicles only accept cargo with a highly negative charge, a quality that nucleic acids have but antibodies lack. By designing a negatively charged amino acid chain that can be attached to any antibody without disrupting its function, they have made antibodies broadly compatible with common transfection agents.
Beyond the technique’s usefulness towards studying intracellular dynamics, the researchers conducted functional experiments with antibodies that highlight the technique’s potential for therapeutic applications. One antibody blocked a protein that decreases the efficacy of certain drugs by prematurely ejecting them from cells. Another blocked a protein involved in the transcription process, which could be an even more fundamental way of knocking out proteins with unwanted effects.
Tissue gets stiffer when it’s compressed. That property can become even more pronounced with injury or disease, which is why doctors palpate tissue as part of a diagnosis, such as when they check for lumps in a cancer screening. That stiffening response is a long-standing biomedical paradox, however: tissue consists of cells within a complex network of fibers, and common sense dictates that when you push the ends of a string together, it loosens tension, rather than increasing it.
Now, in a study published in Nature, University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science researchers have solved this mystery by better understanding the mechanical interplay between that fiber network and the cells it contains.
The researchers found that when tissue is compressed, the cells inside expand laterally, pulling on attached fibers and putting more overall tension on the network. Targeting the proteins that connect cells to the surrounding fiber network might therefore be the optimal way of reducing overall tissue stiffness, a goal in medical treatments for everything from cancer to obesity.
The study was led by Paul Janmey, Professor in the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology and in Penn Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, and Vivek Shenoy, Eduardo D. Glandt President’s Distinguished Professor in Penn Engineering’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Bioengineering, along with Anne van Oosten and Xingyu Chen, graduate students in Janmey’s and Shenoy’s labs. Van Oosten is now a postdoctoral fellow at Leiden University in The Netherlands.
Shenoy is Director of Penn’s Center for Engineering Mechanobiology, which studies how physical forces influence the behavior of biological systems; Janmey is the co-director of one of the Center’s working groups, organized around the question, “How do cells adapt to and change their mechanical environment?”
Together, they have been interested in solving the paradox surrounding tissue stiffness.
MeVR is a bioresponsive virtual reality platform for administering biofeedback therapy. Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of involuntary physiological functions using sensors that provide information on the activity of those bodily systems, with the goal of gaining voluntary control over functions such as heart rate, muscle tension, and pain perception. This therapy is used to treat a variety of conditions such as chronic pain, stress, anxiety, and PTSD. These treatments cost on the order of hundreds to thousands of dollars, require the presence of a therapist to set up and deliver the therapy session, and are generally not interactive or immersive. MeVR is a platform to reduce these limitations of biofeedback therapy through an individualized, immersive, and portable device which guides users through biofeedback therapy using wearable sensors and a virtual reality environment which responds in real-time to biological feedback from the user’s body.
Diabetes is one of the more common diseases among Americans today, with the American Diabetes Association estimating that approximately 9.5 percent of the population battles the condition today. Though symptoms and causes may vary across types and patients, diabetes generally results from the body’s inability to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels in check. A new experimental treatment from the lab of Sha Jin, Ph.D., a biomedical engineering professor at Binghamton University, aims to use about $1.2 million in recent federal grants to develop a method for pancreatic islet cell transplantation, as those are the cells responsible for producing insulin.
But the catch to this new approach is that relying on healthy donors of these islet cells won’t easily meet the vast need for them in diabetic patients. Sha Jin wants to use her grants to consider the molecular mechanisms that can lead pluripotent stem cells to become islet-like organoids. Because pluripotent stem cells have the capability to evolve into nearly any kind of cell in the human body, the key to Jin’s research is learning how to control their mechanisms and signaling pathways so that they only become islet cells. Jin also wants to improve the eventual culture of these islet cells into three-dimensional scaffolds by finding ways of circulating appropriate levels of oxygen to all parts of the scaffold, particularly those at the center, which are notoriously difficult to accommodate. If successful in her tissue engineering efforts, Jin will not only be able to help diabetic patients, but also open the door to new methods of evolving pluripotent stem cells into mini-organ models for clinical testing of other diseases as well.
A Treatment to Help Others See Better
Permanently crossed eyes, a medical condition called strabismus, affects almost 18 million people in the United States, and is particularly common among children. For a person with strabismus, the eyes don’t line up to look at the same place at the same time, which can cause blurriness, double vision, and eye strain, among other symptoms. Associate professor of bioengineering at George Mason University, Qi Wei, Ph.D., hopes to use almost $2 million in recent funding from the National Institute of Health to treat and diagnose strabismus with a data-driven computer model of the condition. Currently, the most common method of treating strabismus is through surgery on one of the extraocular muscles that contribute to it, but Wei wants her model to eventually offer a noninvasive approach. Using data from patient MRIs, current surgical procedures, and the outcomes of those procedures, Wei hopes to advance and innovate knowledge on treating strabismus.
A Newly Analyzed Brain Mechanism Could be the Key to Stopping Seizures
Among neurological disorders, epilepsy is one of the most common. An umbrella term for a lot of different seizure-inducing conditions, many versions of epilepsy can be treated pharmaceutically. Some, however, are resistant to the drugs used for treatment, and require surgical intervention. Bin He, Ph. D., the Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, recently published a paper in collaboration with researchers at Mayo Clinic that describes the way that seizures originating at a single point in the brain can be regulated by what he calls “push-pull” dynamics within the brain. This means that the propagation of a seizure through the brain relies on the impact of surrounding tissue. The “pull” he refers to is of the surrounding tissue towards the seizure onset zone, while the “push” is what propagates from the seizure onset zone. Thus, the strength of the “pull” largely dictates whether or not a seizure will spread. He and his lab looked at different speeds of brain rhythms to perform analysis of functional networks for each rhythm band. They found that this “push-pull” mechanism dictated the propagation of seizures in the brain, and suggest future pathways of treatment options for epilepsy focused on this mechanism.
Hyperspectral Imaging Might Provide New Ways of Finding Cancer
A new method of imaging called hyperspectral imaging could help improve the prediction of cancerous cells in tissue specimens. A recent study from a University of Texas Dallas team of researchers led by professor of bioengineering Baowei Fei, Ph.D., found that a combination of hyperspectral imaging and artificial intelligence led to an 80% to 90% level of accuracy in identifying the presence of cancer cells in a sample of 293 tissue specimens from 102 patients. With a $1.6 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, Fei wants to develop a smart surgical microscope that will help surgeons better detect cancer during surgery.
Fei’s use of hyperspectral imaging allows him to see the unique cellular reflections and absorptions of light across the electromagnetic spectrum, giving each cell its own specific marker and mode of identification. When paired with artificial intelligence algorithms, the microscope Fei has in mind can be trained to specifically recognize cancerous cells based on their hyperspectral imaging patterns. If successful, Fei’s innovations will speed the process of diagnosis, and potentially improve cancer treatments.
People and Places
A group of Penn engineering seniors won the Pioneer Award at the Rothberg Catalyzer Makerthon led be Penn Health-Tech that took place from October 19-20, 2019. SchistoSpot is a senior design project created by students Vishal Tien (BE ‘20), Justin Swirbul (CIS ‘20), Alec Bayliff (BE ‘20), and Bram Bruno (CIS ‘20) in which the group will design a low-cost microscopy dianostic tool that uses computer vision capabilities to automate the diagnosis of schistosomiasis, which is a common parasitic disease. Read about all the winners here.
Virginia Tech University will launch a new Cancer Research Initiative with the hope of creating an intellectual community across engineers, veterinarians, biomedical researchers, and other relevant scientists. The initiative will focus not only on building better connections throughout departments at the university, but also in working with local hospitals like the Carilion Clinic and the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Through these new connections, people from all different areas of science and engineering and come together to share ideas.
Associate Professor of Penn Bioengineering Dani Bassett, Ph.D., recently sat down with the Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor Duncan Watts, Ph.D., for an interview published in Penn Engineering. Bassett discusses the origins of network science, her research in small-world brain networks, academic teamwork, and the pedagogy of science and engineering. You can read the full interview here.
We would like to congratulate Brit Shields, Ph.D., of the Penn Department of Bioengineering, on her recent promotion to Senior Lecturer. Shields got her start at Penn by completing her Ph.D. here in 2015 in History and Sociology of Science, with a dissertation on scientific diplomacy through the example of Richard Courant and New York University, where Shields completed an M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought: Science Studies. Following the conclusion of her doctorate, Shields immediately joined Penn as a lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering, teaching core undergraduate classes like the Senior Thesis course for B.A.S. degree candidates, and Engineering Ethics, one of the courses that fulfills the ethics requirement for all Penn engineering students. Furthermore, Shields has served as an advisor for undergraduate students on senior thesis in the History and Sociology of Science as well as Bioengineering.
In her new position, Shields will have the chance to further develop the engineering ethics curriculum for SEAS students. She will also take on a direct role with freshman bioengineering students as one of two bioengineering faculty members in charge of advising the incoming classes. Through these opportunities to better connect with students, Shields will be able to continue improving the ethics curriculum for all engineering majors, and increase its efficacy in imparting lessons that all engineers should take to the workforce with them. Beyond her roles in the classroom and as an advisor, Shields will also continue her research in the history and sociology of science and technology focusing on both scientific diplomacy and educational programs for engineers. She says that she “look[s] forward to collaborating with the school’s administration, faculty and students to further develop the engineering ethics curriculum. Being able to innovate in this field with such talented students is incredibly rewarding.”