Bioengineering Graduate Students Take the Annual BETA Day Online

By GABE Outreach Chairs and Ph.D. students David Gonzalez-Martinez and David Mai

BETA Day Biomaterials workshop

Every spring, the Graduate Association of Bioengineers (GABE) at Penn partners up with iPraxis, an educational non-profit organization based in Philadelphia, to organize BETA Day, an event that brings together Bioengineering graduate students and local Philadelphia grade school students to introduce them to the field of bioengineering, the life of graduate students, and hands-on scientific demonstrations. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we adapted the traditional in-person BETA Day into a virtual event on Zoom. This year, we assembled kits containing the necessary materials for our chosen demonstrations and worked with iPraxis to coordinate their delivery to partner schools and their students. This enabled students to perform their demonstrations in a hands-on manner from their own homes; over 40 students were able to participate in extracting their own DNA and making biomaterials with safe household materials.

Michelle Johnson presents on her work in robotics

The day began with a fantastic lecture by Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, who introduced students to the field of rehabilitation robotics and shared her experience as a scientist. Students then learned about DNA and biomaterials through lectures mediated by the graduate students Dayo Adetu and Puneeth Guruprasad. After each lecture, students broke into breakout rooms with graduate student facilitators where they were able to get some hands-on scientific experience as they extracted DNA from their cheek cells and fabricated alginate hydrogels. Michael Sobrepera, a graduate student in Dr. Johnson’s lab, concluded the event by giving a lecture on the process of robotics development and discussed where the field is heading and some important considerations for the field.

Dayo Adetu, Bioengineering Master’s student and GABE President, teaches the students about Genetic Engineering

While yet another online event may seem unexciting, throughout the lectures students remained exceptionally engaged and raised fantastic questions ranging from the accessibility of low income communities to novel robotic therapeutic technologies to the bioethical questions robotic engineers will face as technologies advance. The impact of BETA day was evident as the high school students began to discuss the possible majors they would like to pursue for their bachelor’s degrees. Events like BETA Day give a glimpse into possible STEM fields and careers students can pursue.

“Educating the Next Generation of Civically Engaged Technologists”

Brit Shields, Ph.D.

Brit Shields, Senior Lecturer in Bioengineering, has brought her expertise in the history and sociology of science to her leading role in developing and improving the ethics curriculum for all students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Most recently, this includes adapting the core ethics engineering ethics course “Technological Innovation and Civil Discourse in a Dynamic World” (EAS 204) for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Paideia Program. SNF Paideia courses, open to all Penn undergraduates, “integrate students’ personal, professional, and civic development […] focus[ing] on dialogue, wellness, service, and citizenship from different disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.” A recent SNF Paideia blog post goes into detail about the changes made by Shields and co-instructor Christopher Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer and Information Science, to suit the SNF Paideia Program, including its “explicit focus on civil discourse and technology.” According to Shields:

“I really wanted to break down the false dichotomy between technological expertise or humanities training for the students and open up the opportunity for Engineering students to consider themselves to have an important role, not just creating technological systems but also being important participants in civil discourse.”

Michelle Johnson, Ph.D.

The course also includes guest lectures by Penn faculty, including Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and students learn to analyze how guest lecturers communicate their research to the public, for example, in the case of Johnson, in the form of a TED Talk and scholarly articles: “Through her TedTalk, journal articles and visit to the class, Michelle Johnson demonstrates how researchers are attuned to the specific preferences of the rehabilitative robots they are creating for patients…engaged scholarship at its finest.”

Read “Educating the Next Generation of Civically Engaged Technologists” in SNF Paideia Perspectives.

2021 Graduate Research Fellowships for Bioengineering Students

We are very pleased to announce that ten current and future graduate students in the Department of Bioengineering have received 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) fellowships. The prestigious NSF GRFP program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported fields. Further information about the program can be found on the NSF website. BE is thrilled to congratulate our excellent students on these well-deserved accolades! Continue reading below for a list of 2021 recipients and descriptions of their research.

Current Students:

Puneeth Guruprasad

Puneeth Guruprasad is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Marco Ruella, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology and the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Perelman School of Medicine. His work applies next generation sequencing methods to characterize tumors and study the genetic basis of resistance to cancer immunotherapy, namely chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy.

Gabrielle Ho

Gabrielle (Gabby) Ho is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Brian Chow, Associate Professor in Bioengineering. She works on design strategies for engineering near-infrared fluorescent proteins and tools.

 

Abbas Idris

Abbas Idris is a Master’s student in the lab of Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. His work focuses on using optogenetic tools to develop controllable protein assemblies for the study of cell signaling behaviors.

 

 

Incoming Students:

Additionally, seven NSF GRFP honorees from other institutions will be joining our department as Ph.D. students in the fall of 2021. We congratulate them as well and look forward to welcoming them to Penn:

Congratulations again to all our current and future graduate students on their amazing research!

“Science vs Science: The Contradictory Fight Over Whether Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity is Real”

cell phones
Kenneth R. Foster, Ph.D.

Electromagnetic fields are everywhere, and especially so in recent years. To most of us, those fields are undetectable. But a small number of people believe they have an actual allergy to electromagnetic fields. Ken Foster, a Professor Emeritus of Bioengineering, has heard these arguments before.  “Activists would point to all these biological effects studies and say, ‘There must be some hazard’; health agencies would have meticulous reviews of literature and not see much of a problem.”

Listen to the episode of The Pulse and read the full story at WHYY.

Originally posted on Penn Today.

Becoming a Bioengineer, Both at Home and On Campus

by Erica K. Brockmeier

The junior year BE-MAD lab series includes modules on dialysis, drug delivery, insect limb control, microfluidics, cell-cell communication, ECG analysis (pictured here), and spectroscopy. (Image: Bioengineering Educational Lab)

While the majority of courses remained online this spring, a small number of lab-based undergraduate courses were able to resume limited in-person instruction. One course was BE 310, the second semester of the Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design lab sequence. Better known as BE-MAD, this junior-year bioengineering course was able to bring students back to the teaching lab safely this spring while adapting its curriculum to keep remote learners engaged with hands-on lab modules at home.

An Essential Step Towards Becoming a Bioengineer

After learning the basics of chemistry, physics, biology, and math during freshman year and studying bioengineering fundamentals throughout sophomore year, BE-MAD is designed to provide essential hands-on experience to bioengineering majors during their junior years. In BE-MAD, students integrate what they’ve learned so far in the classroom to addressing complex, real-world problems by breaking down the silos that exist across different STEM fields.

“Usually what we hear from students is that this BE 309/310 sequence is when they really feel like they are engineers,” says Brian Chow, one of the BE 310 instructors. “They can put what they learn in classes to work in some practical setting and applied context.”

BE-MAD is also an important course to prepare students for senior design and is designed to be a “safe space to fail,” allowing students to build confidence through trial and error within a supportive environment, explains Sevile G. Mannickarottu, director of the educational laboratories. “We’re trying to build skills needed for senior year as well as teaching students how to think critically about problems by pulling together the materials they’ve learned all in one place,” he says. “By senior year, we want them to, when presented with a problem, not be afraid.”

Adapting BE-MAD for Both Remote and Hybrid Instruction

Traditionally, the BE-MAD lab is taught in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory & Bio-MakerSpace, the primary bioengineering teaching lab, and includes modules on dialysis, drug delivery, insect limb control, microfluidics, cell-cell communication, ECG analysis, and spectroscopy. In the fall, the first lab in the series (BE-309) pivoted to remote learning using video tutorials of lab experiments and providing real data to students for analysis.

This spring, with more aspects of on-campus life able to reopen, the Educational Laboratory staff and BE-MAD instructors developed protocols in collaboration with David Meaney, Penn Engineering senior associate dean and an instructor for BE 309, and Penn’s Environmental Health and Radiation Safety office to safely reopen the teaching lab and Bio-MakerSpace for both BE-310 and for bioengineering senior design students.

The BE-MAD lab was also recreated on Gather.Town, an online video chat platform where students can speak with group members or instructors. Student groups also had their own tables where they could meet virtually to work on data analysis and lab report writing.

To continue to meet the needs of remote students, BE 310 instructor Lukasz Bugaj says that the curriculum was adapted to be two parallel courses—one that could be done entirely at home and the other in-person. The challenge was to adjust the content so that it could be completed either in-person or virtually, and could be switched from in-person to virtual at a moment’s notice because of COVID precautions, all while maximizing the hands-on experience, says Bugaj. “That’s a real credit to the lab staff of Sevile and Michael Patterson, who put a lot of work into revamping this entire class.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Bioengineering’s Organ-on-a-chip Spin-off is Growing

Andrei Georgescu (left) and Dan Huh are the co-founders of Vivodyne, a spin-off of Huh’s BIOLines lab.

Dan Huh, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, has been steadily growing a collection of organs-on-chips. These devices incorporate human cells into precisely engineered microfluidic channels that mimic an organ’s natural environment, providing a way to conduct experiments that would not otherwise be feasible.

Huh’s previous research has involved using a placenta-on-a-chip to study which drugs are able to reach a developing fetus; investigating microgravity’s effect on the immune system by sending one of his chips to the International Space Station; and testing treatments for dry eye disease using an eye-on-a-chip, complete with a mechanical blinking eyelid.

Now, he and his colleagues are taking this technology out of their lab and into industry with their company, Vivodyne.

Andrei Georgescu, Huh’s lab-member and co-founder of Vivodyne, recently spoke with Technical.ly Philly’s Paige Gross about the growth of their company.

Research into potential drugs is usually performed first on mice, and success is only found in a fraction of humans once implemented in clinical trials, Andrei Georgescu, cofounder and CEO of Vivodyne, told Technical.ly. The genetic makeup just isn’t similar enough. But technology that allows scientists to test therapies on lab-grown human organs called “organs on chip” is allowing for testing without human subjects.

The organs on chip allow for a drug to react to tissue in a more similar way to the body than it would in a petri dish, Georgescu said. Cells sense their environment very well, he added.

“We’re making the environment more complicated, making its spacial features complicated enough to match the native complexity of the organs,” he said. “When [cells] sense a softer environment, they start to behave more realistically. Their response to the drug is more realistic.”

Continue reading “This Penn-founded biotech company specializing in human ‘organs on chip’ raised $4M” at Technical.ly Philly. 

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.

Carl June Receives the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award

Carl June, MD

Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, and member of the Penn Bioengineering Graduate Group, received the $1 million Sanford Lorraine Cross Award for his groundbreaking work in developing chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy. June is a world renowned cancer cell therapy pioneer.

“Sanford Health, the only health system in the country to award a $1 million prize for achievements in the medical sciences, announced the award on April 13 at a special ceremony in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The biennial award recognizes life-changing breakthroughs and bringing emerging transformative medical innovations to patients.

‘This is a well-deserved and exciting award for one of Penn’s most distinguished faculty members, whose pioneering research has reshaped the fight against cancer and brought fresh hope for both adults and children with the disease,’ said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, Executive Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. ‘His contributions truly have been transformative for patients across the globe and taken the field of oncology in new and powerful directions.'”

Read the full story in Penn Medicine News.

Modified Nanoparticles Can Stop Osteoarthritis Development

Zhiliang Cheng

As we age, the cushioning cartilage between our joints begins to wear down, making it harder and more painful to move. Known as osteoathritis, this extremely common condition has no known cure; if the symptoms can’t be managed, the affected joints must be surgically replaced.

Now, researchers are exploring whether their specially designed nanoparticles can deliver a new inflammation inhibitor to joints, targeting a previously overlooked enzyme called sPLA2.

Zhiliang Cheng, a research associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering, recently collaborated with members of Penn Medicine’s McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, on a study of this approach, published in the journal Science Advances.

The normal function of sPLA2 is to provide lipids (fats) that promote a variety of inflammation processes. The enzyme is always present in cartilage tissue, but typically in low levels. However, when the researchers examined mouse and human cartilage taken from those with osteoarthritis, disproportionately high levels of the enzyme were discovered within the tissue’s structure and cells.

“This marked increase strongly suggests that sPLA2 plays a role in the development of osteoarthritis,” said the study’s corresponding author, Zhiliang Cheng, PhD, a research associate professor of Bioengineering. “Being able to demonstrate this showed that we were on the right track for what could be a potent target for the disease.”

The next step was for the study team – which included lead author Yulong Wei, MD, a researcher in Penn Medicine’s McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory – to put together a nanoparticle loaded with an sPLA2 inhibitor. This would block the activity of sPLA2 enzyme and, they believed, inflammation. These nanoparticles were mixed with animal knee cartilage in a lab, then observed as they diffused deeply into the dense cartilage tissue. As time progressed, the team saw that the nanoparticles stayed there and did not degrade significantly or disappear. This was important for the type of treatment the team envisioned.

Continue reading at Penn Medicine News.

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.

“New Biosealant Can Stabilize Cartilage, Promote Healing After Injury”

New research from Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering and Director of Penn Medicine’s McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, announces a “new biosealant therapy may help to stabilize injuries that cause cartilage to break down, paving the way for a future fix or – even better – begin working right away with new cells to enhance healing.” Their research was published in Advanced Healthcare Materials. The study’s lead author was Jay Patel, a former postdoctoral fellow in the McKay Lab and now Assistant Professor at Emory University and was contributed to by Claudia Loebel, a postdoctoral research in the Burdick lab and who will begin an appointment as Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan in Fall 2021. In addition, the technology detailed in this publication is at the heart of a new company (Forsagen LLC) spun out of Penn with support from the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) Ventures Program, which will attempt to spearhead the system’s entry into the clinic. It is co-founded by both Mauck and Patel, along with study co-author Jason Burdick, Professor in Bioengineering, and Ana Peredo, a PhD student in Bioengineering.

Read the story in Penn Medicine News.

Ning Jenny Jiang Appointed Associate Professor in Penn Bioengineering

Jenny Jiang, Ph.D.

We are thrilled to announce the appointment of Ning Jenny Jiang, Ph.D. as a tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Jenny Jiang comes to Penn from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. She obtained her Ph.D. from Georgia Institute of Technology and did her postdoctoral training at Stanford University.

Jiang’s research focuses on systems immunology by developing technologies that enable high-throughput, high-content, single cell profiling of T cells in health and disease and she is recognized as one of the leading authorities in systems immunology and immunoengineering. She is a pioneer in developing tools in biophysics, genomics, immunology, and informatics and applying them to study systems immunology in human diseases. Her early work on the development of the first high-throughput immune-repertoire sequencing technology opened up a brand new field of immune-repertoire profiling. Her laboratory developed the first high-throughput in situ T cell receptor affinity measurement technology and she pioneered the development of integrated single T cell profiling technologies. These technological innovations have changed the paradigm of T cell profiling in disease diagnosis and in immune engineering for therapeutics. Using these technologies, her laboratory has made many discoveries in immunology, from unexpected infants’ immunity in malaria infection to “holes” in T cell repertoire in aging immune systems in elderly, from dysregulated T cells in HIV infection to high-throughput identification of neoantigen-specific T cell receptor for cancer immunotherapy.

Dr. Jiang was also recently elected to the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) College of Fellows for her outstanding contributions to the field of systems immunology and immunoengineering and devotion to the success of women in engineering. A virtual induction ceremony was held on March 26, 2021.

Additionally, Jiang is a recipient of numerous other awards, including the Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovation Award, an NSF CAREER award, and a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Neurodegeneration Challenge Network Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Award. She was selected as one of National Academy of Medicine Emerging Leaders in Health and Medicine Scholars in 2019.

Jiang’s appointment will begin June 1, 2021. Welcome to Penn Bioengineering, Dr. Jiang!