Daniel K. Bogen, MD, PhD, a professor in Penn’s Department of Bioengineering, is retiring. A Harvard alumnus (AB, 1972; PhD, 1977; MD, 1979). Dr. Bogen was the the first MD/PhD hired by the department in its history. Starting at Penn in 1982, Dr. Bogen spent his entire career on the faculty.
Early in his career, Dr. Bogen focused on cardiac tissue mechanics and understanding the functional changes that occur to heart tissue after ischemic insult. These publications were among the first to use finite element techniques to address the critical problem of how heart wall contraction changes after injury. Some of these papers are continually cited even today. Motivated to work on practical and applied clinical bioengineering-based problems, Dr. Bogen transformed his research to build items that patients would use. Rather than a timescale from discovery to application that can last decades for most academic researchers, Dr. Bogen’s new direction allowed him to put items in the hands of patients within months. In addition, Dr. Bogen’s led the PENNToys program, a nationally known program designing toys for children with disabilities.
The passion for impact also extended into the classroom. Reimagining the laboratory education in bioengineering, he used NSF-sponsored funding to create a discovery-based educational experience for undergraduates. This laboratory educational experience became an international model program, copied by many highly ranked bioengineering/biomedical engineering programs. This educational program was the cornerstone of the proposal funded by the Whitaker Foundation, leading to the construction of Skirkanich Hall, the current home of the Department of Bioengineering, in 2006. As a testament to his gifts as an education, Dr. Bogen’s teaching excellence was rewarded in 2005 with the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Award, which is the highest university teaching award bestowed by Penn.
Dr. Bogen will remain active in his retirement, and always enjoys hearing from alumni and students. Feel free to send him a congratulatory note — email@example.com.
One of the Penn Bioengineering Department’s senior projects was the work of a two-person team: Brianna Wronko and Guyrandy Jean-Gilles. The result of their work was the MultiDiagnostic, a microfluidics platform that the two students describe as “A Fast, Inexpensive, and Accessible Diagnostic Solution.”
Brianna says that the project was originally conceived as a way for HIV clinics and treatment centers to test biological parameters such as viral load. However, the inability of Brianna and Guy to handle HIV-infected blood in the lab, as well as the desire to generate a product that could both serve patients directly and have a commercial focus. They decided their first offering would consist of liver function tests.
Manufactured by an automated process, the MultiDiagnostic is a paper microfluidics platform with a software component that can be run on a computer or cell phone. When a bodily fluid is placed into the platform, it diffuses into separate chambers of the platform, where colorimetric analysis is then conducted and data communicated via the software’s graphical user interface to the user.
The students currently have the platform in preclinical trials for the testing of aspartase aminotransferase and alkaline phosphatase; the ability to test alanine aminotransferase, bilirubin, and total protein are in the prototyping stage. Their current model is priced at a $10 customer price, which is considerably less expensive than competing technologies already on the market.
Among the most interesting aspects of this senior project team, other than the product itself, was that it had only two members. Asked how this fact affected their work, Brianna admitted that it posed a bit of an obstacle at first. However, she said, “we decided to break up the concept into parts, with me doing the wet lab parts, in which I have a background and Guy, whose background is in software, doing those parts.” In the end, they’re very happy with their final product.
Every year the Penn Bioengineering Department presents several awards to students. In addition to the Senior Design Awards, which will be featured over the course of the month, students were awarded for their service, originality, leadership, and scholarship.
The Hugo Otto Wolf Memorial Prize, endowed more than a century ago by the Philadelphia architect Otto Wolf, in memory of his son, was given to Margaret Nolan and Ingrid Lan. The Herman P. Schwan Award, named for a former faculty member in Bioengineering, was given to Elizabeth Kobe and Lucy Chai.
The Albert Giandomenico Award, presented to four students who “reflect several traits that include teamwork, leadership, creativity, and knowledge applied to discovery-based learning in the laboratory,” was given to Justin Averback, Jake Budlow, Justin Morena, and Young Shin.
In addition, Sushmitha Yarrabothula received the Bioengineering Student Leadership Award and four students — Hayley Williamson, Amey Vrudhula, Jane Shmushkis, and Ikshita Singh, won the Penn Engineering Exceptional Service Award.
Finally, the Biomedical Applied Science Senior Project Award, presented annually to the students who have “best demonstrated originality and creativity in the integration of knowledge,” was awarded to Derek Yee and Andrea Simi.
“These awards recognize many aspects of our students: their high academic achievement, exceptional collaborative spirit, and leadership abilities,” said BE department chair David Meaney. “However, these traits are not limited to the only these students. Every single one of our undergraduates at Penn pushes themselves well beyond the classroom and into the community to make a unique difference.”
One can easily see that many of the world’s greatest challenges — producing enough food for the world population, providing each person with a set of fundamental human rights, or creating a sustainable environmental footprint as our societies move forward — must tap into two uniquely human traits: creativity and curiosity. In the fields of science and engineering, one can look at history and easily find creative and curious pioneers who ranged from Leonardo de Vinci (pioneered the field of human physiology), Grace Hopper (invented computer compilers), and Sir James Dyson (brought elegance to common household tools – the vacuum cleaner, the fan, the hand dryer, and the hair dryer).
Although we can look around and identify creative people, a natural question would be: What events in these individuals’ lives led to this creativity? We may see people around us who are creative and curious, but we often simply shrug and say ,“Wow, pretty ingenious person there.” Maybe we even think of this with a bit of yearning: “Boy, I wish I could think of things like that.” We often make the observation and get back to our daily lives, accepting that creative people are born or “just happen.” In other words, we are either struck by lightning, or we are not. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Creative and curious people are not genetically wired differently than others. Curiosity and creativity are not rare skills conferred by serendipity. Instead, creative and curious people have benefited from mentors who pushed them to ask “Why?” at the right time in their lives: perhaps being in the right science class with the right teacher in middle school or reading a novel that made them imagine a world they could not see.
What does all of this have to do with engineering? Well, some research suggests that many U.S. engineering undergraduates are weaker than their international counterparts in divergent and convergent thinking, which are two critical ingredients for creativity. These two thinking modalities may be propelled by different sorts of curiosity. Assessment tests for creative thinking traits often measure the ability to synthesize ideas, observations, and other information to make something new. From many possibilities, only one emerges as the ideal solution. This process is generally referred to as convergent thinking. A second creativity trait is the raw ability to generate ideas, given a particular problem. For example, one could be asked to generate as many possible uses of a brick that one can think of, and the resulting ideas are scored — both in terms of the number of ideas generated and the distinctiveness of each idea separately. This assessment, known as the alternative use test, measures divergent thinking. Ideally, engineers would have high ability in both divergent and convergent thinking, which would mean that they could both think of many possible solutions and pick the best among them. However, one study performed almost a decade ago showed that half of the engineering undergraduates in the U.S. showed deficiencies in both convergent and divergent thinking — troubling, to say the least.
However, all is not lost. Many changes have occurred over the last decade for engineering education in the U.S. We embraced the laboratory as a platform for problem-based learning, which cultivates the ideation phase of creativity and the convergence to a solution. We have also ‘tipped’ and ‘flipped’ the classroom to introduce more methods of open-ended problems as teaching tools, again using this change to reinforce that there are many ways and, rarely, one best way to solve a particular problem.
Yet with all of these very positive changes, we still don’t have a good road map for how ideas form in the mind, how we trade off one idea versus another, and how we decide which is the best idea. Our tools for creativity are based on countless efforts to try different methods, measure whether they have an effect, and take the most successful empirical methods and transform them into practice. Until recently, we had no idea what was going on in the mind during the creative process.
Fortunately, we now have ways to both interrogate and model how the mind works when we think and create. Inspired by the principle that blood flow will increase to areas of the brain with high neural activity (side note: the brain is a remarkable energy hog for the body, representing less than 3% of body mass but consuming nearly 20% of its energy resources), researchers are measuring how flow to different areas of the brain change when people are asked to perform specific tasks. Early work showed these beautiful, color-coded images of how one task would increase blood flow to one area, while another task would increase blood flow to a different area.
Patterns of connectivity in the brain can be represented as
dynamic networks, which change in their configuration as
humans change mental states or cognitive processes while
performing a task.
However, scientists began to realize, that instead of looking at one pattern of brain activation at one time, we needed to study how the pattern changed over time. Analyzing these changes over time allowed us to estimate the brain areas that activated simultaneously with another during a mental task. If they activated together frequently, we assumed that they would have a functional connectivity between them. Simply put, areas that fire together are wired together, metaphorically speaking. Very quickly, we saw maps of the brain’s own functional network emerge when volunteers would work on math problems, navigate a maze, and even when they were asked to just daydream.
Where does this lead us? Well, we stand on the cusp of learning and predicting the coordinated steps that our mind takes when we imagine different ideas and pick one as ‘the best.’ Not only can we map this process in real time, but we can also develop new theories about how to ‘steer’ from one brain network state to another. We can also apply this new knowledge to individuals on a case-by-case basis, rather than relying on the one-size-fits-all approach that is the current and common practice in cultivating divergent and convergent thinking. In practice, this means that we would move away from prescribing the same creativity training exercise for everyone — with a large variation in the results — to a far more customized, efficient cognitive exercise. In fact, we could directly test the possibility that some of these exercises work for some people and not others because of an individual’s brain wiring map. Science fiction? Nope, just modern day bioengineering at work.