Kariyawasam is a double major in Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering, with concentrations in computational medicine and medical devices, and in the Wharton School, with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship and innovation.
“We are so proud of our newest Penn Rhodes Scholars who have been chosen for this tremendous honor and opportunity,” said President Amy Gutmann. “The work Raveen has done in health care innovation and accessibility and Nicholas has done to support student well-being while at Penn is impressive, and pursuing a graduate degree at Oxford will build upon that foundation. We look forward to seeing how they make an impact in the future.”
The Rhodes is highly competitive and one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. The scholarships provide all expenses for as long as four years of study at Oxford University in England.
According to the Rhodes Trust, about 100 Rhodes Scholars will be selected worldwide this year, chosen from more than 60 countries. Several have attended American colleges and universities but are not U.S. citizens and have applied through their home country, including Kariyawasam in Sri Lanka.
The University of Pennsylvania’s 2021 iGEM team has been awarded several distinctions in this year’s highly competitive iGEM Competition. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition is the largest synthetic biology community and the premiere synthetic biology competition for both university and high school level students from around the world. Each year, hundreds of interdisciplinary teams of students combine molecular biology techniques and engineering concepts to create novel biological systems and compete for prizes and awards through oral presentations and poster sessions.
The Penn team’s project, “OptoReader,” is a combined light-simulation device and plate reader, which makes optogenetic experiments more powerful and accessible. The abstract reads:
“Metabolic engineering has the potential to change the world, and optogenetic tools can make metabolic engineering research easier by providing spatiotemporal control over cells. However, current optogenetic experiments are low-throughput, expensive, and laborious, which makes them inaccessible to many. To tackle this problem, we combined a light-stimulation device with a plate reader, creating our OptoReader. This device allows us to automate ~100 complex optogenetic experiments at the same time. Because it is open source and inexpensive, our device would make optogenetic experiments more efficient and available to all.”
This year’s Penn team was mentored by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. In addition, the team was supported by Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. Chow has supported previous undergraduate iGEM teams at Penn, and was involved in the creation of the iGEM program during his time as a graduate student at MIT.
OptoReader took home the top prizes in three of the four categories in which it was nominated. These prizes include:
Best Foundational Advance (best in track)
Best Hardware (best from all undergraduate teams)
Best Presentation (best from all undergraduate teams)
They were also awarded a Gold Medal Distinction and were included in the Top 10 Overall (from all undergraduate teams, and the only team from the United States to make the top 10) and Top 10 Websites (from all undergraduate teams).
The awards were announced during iGEM’s online Jamboree Award Ceremony on November 14, 2021 (watch the full award ceremony here).
In addition to the outstanding awards recognition, OptoReader was also selected for an iGEM Impact Grant which awards teams $2,500 to continue development of their projects. This new initiative from the iGEM Foundation was announced earlier this year, and with the support of the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, is distributing a total of $225,000 in grant funds to 90 iGEM teams during the 2021 competition season. Learn more about the Impact Grant and read the full list of winning teams here.
Penn’s 2021 iGEM team was made up of an interdisciplinary group of women undergraduates from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS):
Saachi Datta (B.A. in Biology and Religious Studies 2021)
Juliette Hooper (B.S.E. and M.S.E. in Bioengineering 2022)
Gabrielle Leavitt (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2021 and current Master’s student in Bioengineering)
Gloria Lee (B.A. in Physics and B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
Grace Qian (B.S.E. in Bioengineering 2023)
Lana Salloum (B.A. in Neuroscience 2022)
They were mentored by three doctoral students in Bioengineering: Will Benman (Bugaj Lab), David Gonzalez Martinez (Bugaj Lab), Gabrielle Ho (Chow Lab). Saurabh Malani, a graduate student in the Avalos Lab at Prince University, was also very involved in mentoring the team.
The graduate mentors were instrumental in quickly bringing the undergraduates up to speed on a diverse array of skills needed to accomplish this project including circuit design, optics, optogenetics, programming, and additive manufacturing. They then coached the team through building and testing prototypes, as well as accomplishing other objectives required for success at iGEM. These other objectives included establishing collaborations with other iGEM teams, performing outreach, and effectively communicating their project through a website and online presentations.
“This team and their work is outstanding,” said William Benman. “Not only did they sweep several awards, but they did it all with a small team and while working with technology they had no prior experience with. They created a device that not only increases accessibility to optogenetics but also allows optogenetic systems to interface directly with computer programs, allowing for completely new research avenues within the field. They are truly a remarkable group.”
Due to the COVID pandemic, the team operated virtually through the summer of 2020, and then continued in person in the summer of 2021 as the project progressed and more students returned to Penn’s campus. Upon return to campus, the work was conducted in both the Bugaj lab in the Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary teaching laboratory in Penn Bioengineering and an interdisciplinary makerspace open to anyone at Penn. The team also collaborated with the Avalos Lab at Princeton University, which conducts research in the application of optogenetics to optimize production of valuable chemicals in microbes.
“I’m beyond excited about this phenomenal showing from team Penn at the iGEM Jamboree awards ceremony,” said faculty mentor Lukasz Bugaj. “This is truly outstanding recognition for what the team has accomplished, and it wouldn’t have happened without essential contributions from everyone on the team.”
Brian Chow added that this achievement is “no small feat,” especially for a hardware project. “The iGEM competition leans toward genetic strain engineering, but the advances in the field made by these incredible students were undeniable,” he said.
Going forward, the team plans to publish a scientific article and file a patent application describing their device. “It’s clear that there is excitement in the scientific community for what our students created, and we’re excited to share the details and designs of their work,” said Bugaj.
Congratulations to all the team members and mentors of OptoReader on this incredible achievement! Check out the OptoReader project website and Instagram to learn more about their project.
Yogesh Goyal, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Genetics and Bioengineering, has been selected as a 2021 STAT Wunderkind, which honors the “next generation of scientific superstars.” Goyal’s research is centered around developing novel mathematical and experimental frameworks to study how a rare subpopulation of cancer cells are able to survive drug therapy and develop resistance, resulting in relapse in patients. In particular, his work provides a view of different paths that single cancer cells take when becoming resistant, at unprecedented resolution and scale. This research aims to help devise novel therapeutic strategies to combat the challenge of drug resistance in cancer.
Goyal is a Jane Coffin Childs Postdoctoral Fellow in the systems biology lab of Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics at Penn. He will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in spring 2022.
Speaker: Samir Mitragotri, Ph.D.
Hiller Professor of Bioengineering and Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering
John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Date: Thursday, November 18, 2021
Time: 3:30-4:30 PM EST
Zoom – check email for link or contact email@example.com
This seminar will be held virtually, but students registered for BE 699 can gather to watch in Moore 216.
Abstract: Ionic liquids, the liquid salts comprising organic anions and cations, offer exciting opportunities for several therapeutic applications. Their tunable properties offer control over their design and function. Starting with biocompatible ions, we synthesized a library of ionic liquids and explored them for various drug delivery applications. Ionic liquids provided unique advantages including overcoming the biological transport barriers of skin, buccal mucosa and the intestinal epithelium. At the same time, they also stabilized proteins and nucleic acids and enabled the delivery of biologics across these barriers. Ionic liquids also provided unique biological functions including adjuvancy towards vaccines and antimicrobial function. I will present an overview of the design features of ionic liquids and novel biomedical applications enabled by these unique materials.
Samir Mitragotri Bio: Samir Mitragotri is the Hiller Professor of Bioengineering and Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. His research is focused on transdermal, oral, and targeted drug delivery systems. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Medicine and National Academy of Inventors. He is also a foreign member of Indian National Academy of Engineering. He is also an elected fellow of AAAS, CRS, BMES, AIMBE, and AAPS. He is an author of over 350 publications, an inventor on over 200 patent/patent applications, and a Clarivate Highly Cited Researcher. He received his BS in Chemical Engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, India and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the Editor-in-Chief of AIChE’s and SBE’s journal Bioengineering and Translational Medicine.
While biologists and chemists race to develop new antibiotics to combat constantly mutating bacteria, predicted to lead to 10 million deaths by 2050, engineers are approaching the problem through a different lens: finding naturally occurring antibiotics in the human genome.
The billions of base pairs in the genome are essentially one long string of code that contains the instructions for making all of the molecules the body needs. The most basic of these molecules are amino acids, the building blocks for peptides, which in turn combine to form proteins. However, there is still much to learn about how — and where — a particular set of instructions are encoded.
Now, bringing a computer science approach to a life science problem, an interdisciplinary team of Penn researchers have used a carefully designed algorithm to discover a new suite of antimicrobial peptides, hiding deep within this code.
The study, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, was led by César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Microbiology, Psychiatry, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, spanning both Penn Engineering and Penn Medicine, and his postdocs Marcelo Torres and Marcelo Melo. Collaborators Orlando Crescenzi and Eugenio Notomista of the University of Naples Federico II also contributed to this work.
“The human body is a treasure trove of information, a biological dataset. By using the right tools, we can mine for answers to some of the most challenging questions,” says de la Fuente. “We use the word ‘encrypted’ to describe the antimicrobial peptides we found because they are hidden within larger proteins that seem to have no connection to the immune system, the area where we expect to find this function.”
Penn Bioengineering alumna Cynthia Reinhart-King, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, was elected the next President of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), the largest professional society for biomedical engineers. Her term as president-elect started at the annual BMES meeting in October 2021.
Reinhart-King graduated with her Ph.D. from Penn Bioengineering in 2006. She studied in the lab of Daniel Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering as a Whitaker Fellow and went on to complete postdoctoral training as an Individual NIH NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester. Prior to joining Vanderbilt, she was on the faculty of Cornell University and received tenure in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. The Reinhart-King lab at Vanderbilt “uses tissue engineering, microfabrication, novel biomaterials, model organisms, and tools from cell and molecular biology to study the effects of mechanical and chemical changes in tissues during disease progression.”
Reinhart-King gave the 2019 Grace Hopper Distinguished Lecture, sponsored by the Department of Bioengineering. This lecture series recognizes successful women in engineering and seeks to inspire students to achieve at the highest level. She is a recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Rita Schaffer Young Investigator Award in 2010, an NSF CAREER Award, and the Mid-Career Award in 2018 from BMES.
“BMES is facing many challenges, like many societies, as we deal with the hurdles associated with COVID-19 and inequities across society. We must continue to address those challenges. However, we are also in a terrific window of having robust membership, many members who are eager to get involved with the society’s activities, and a national lens on science and scientists. One of my goals will be to identify and create opportunities for our members to help build the reach of the society and its member.”
Read “Cynthia Reinhart-King is president-elect of the Biomedical Engineering Society” in Vanderbilt News.
A study published in PLOS Computational Biology describes a new model for how the olfactory system discerns unique odors. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that a simplified, statistics-based model can explain how individual odors can be perceived as more or less similar from others depending on the context. This model provides a starting point for generating new hypotheses and conducting experiments that can help researchers better understand the olfactory system, a complex, crucial part of the brain.
The sense of smell, while crucial for things like taste and hazard avoidance, is not as well studied as other senses. Study co-author Vijay Balasubramanian, a theoretical physicist with an interest in how living systems process information, says that olfaction is a prime example of a complex information-processing system found in nature, as there are far more types of volatile molecules—on the scale of tens or hundreds of thousands—than there are receptor types in the nose to detect them, on the scale of tens to hundreds depending on the species.
“Every molecule can bind to many receptors, and every receptor can bind to many molecules, so you get this combinatorial mishmash, with the nose encoding smells in a way that involves many receptor types to collectively tell you what a smell is,” says Balasubramanian. “And because there are many fewer receptor types than molecular species, you basically have to compress a very high dimensional olfactory space into a much lower dimensional space of neural responses.”
Catherine Michelutti, a junior in Bioengineering and Wharton and fellow in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Paideia Program, shared her virtual internship experience with the Orion Organisation, a healthcare NGO based in South Africa that provides for “the educational, training and therapeutic needs of children, youth and adults living with physical, psychosocial challenges, intellectual and neurological disabilities”:
“My internship with the Orion Organization has prompted me to reflect on my identity in terms of where my passions and future career interests lie. My previous work experiences have all been in biomedical research fields, which is something I’m passionate about and want to continue doing throughout my career. However, working with Orion has opened my eyes to the realms of interdisciplinary work that comes with operating a healthcare NGO and the joys that come with it.”