‘I Look Like an Engineer’

Penn Engineering students (clockwise) Nyasha Zimunhu, Fahmida Lubna, Celestina Saven, Sanjana Hemdev, Sabrina Green and Sydney Kariuki all participated in the “I Look Like an Engineer” campaign, locally organized by AWE.

Penn Engineering’s Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) program, dedicated to recruiting, retaining and promoting all female-identified students in the School, participated in the “I Look Like an Engineer” social media movement for the third year in a row. The movement, aimed at promoting diversity around underrepresented groups like women and people of color, was started by software developer Isis Anchalee in 2015.

Francesca Cimino

Francesca Cimino, member of AWE and a rising senior in the Department of Bioengineering, has always been passionate about changing the stereotypes and breaking down the barriers that prevent engineers of diverse backgrounds from thriving. She wanted to continue AWE’s tradition of participating in the movement to showcase the diversity already present within the field and prove that there is no single characteristic that defines an engineer.

At the conclusion of the campaign, Cimino responded to questions about the importance of diversity and what a more equal world in engineering looks like.

Why did you decide to get involved with AWE?

I applied to be a part of AWE’s Student Advisory Board during the spring semester of my freshman year. Being on the board was very enticing to me because I was looking to make connections with more women engineers at the time. I wanted to create my own community of women engineers while also wanting to help foster a community for all. AWE’s message and goals really resonated with me as well, so I knew it would be a perfect fit.

How important has mentorship from other female engineers been for you?

Being able to interact and learn from women who have experience in the industries I am most interested in has been very valuable to me. It has been inspiring to learn about their stories and the fact that I can relate to many of them has definitely allowed me to become more confident as I get closer to starting my career. Mentorship is something AWE really values and the board has worked to develop a mentoring network for women engineers, which I really admire.

Read the full Q&A in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Health-Tech Q&A with César de la Fuente

Created in the lab of César de la Fuente, this miniaturized, portable version of rapid COVID-19 test, which is compatible with smart devices, can detect SARS-CoV-2 within four minutes with nearly 100% accuracy. (Image: Courtesy of César de la Fuente)

César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Microbiology, and Psychiatry, was the inaugural recipient of the Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity (NEMO) Prize from Penn Health-Tech in 2020 for his low-cost, rapid COVID test. Now with promising results recently published in the journal Matter (showing 90 percent accuracy in as little as four minutes), Penn Health-Tech caught up with de la Fuente to discuss his experience over the past year:

“How did [your project] evolve in the past year?

‘We started with one prototype and now have three entirely different prototypes for the test. Two use electrochemistry, and we are now working on a new technology that uses calorimetry. With calorimetry, when the cotton swabs are exposed to the virus, they change color. This means users are able to see if they’re affected by a virus through a simple color change, making it more of a visual detection method.'”

Read the full Q&A in the Penn Health-Tech blog.

“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.

Looking Towards the Future Through an Interdisciplinary Lens

by Erica K. Brockmeier

Yasmina Al Ghadban, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from Beirut, was able to connect her undergraduate education in bioengineering and psychology with her passion for public health through teaching, research, and extracurricular activities. Now, she is poised to leverage her “interdisciplinary lens” towards a future career in public health.

While reflecting on her undergraduate journey at Penn, senior Yasmina Al Ghadban says that she has a “ton of memories” she will take with her: lifelong friends made and skills developed through coursework, research, and teaching experiences, the chance to engage with public health communities on campus, and traveling for courses and internships. “That’s the beauty of Penn,” she says. “There’s just so many opportunities everywhere.”

As a double major in bioengineering and psychology, Al Ghadban, who is from Beirut, has certainly taken advantage of many such opportunities. Now, she is poised to leverage her “interdisciplinary lens” towards a future career in public health.

Problem-solving perspectives

Looking for a place to grow and become more independent, Al Ghadban decided to come to Penn after graduating from the International College in Lebanon. After taking an introduction to bioengineering course during her freshman year, she became enthralled by the hands-on nature of the program and enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “I really enjoyed working with circuits and Arduino, being able to synthesize things, and I felt like being in engineering was the place where I was going to gain the most skills,” she says.

Al Ghadban is applying those skills as she completes her senior design project. She and a team of four seniors are building an autonomous robot equipped with Lidar sensors that it uses to create a map of a physical space. The team also programmed their robot to recognize high-touch surfaces that it then disinfects with UV light. “It’s a technology that is completely autonomous, cheaper than what’s on the market, and doesn’t put people at risk when they go in to disinfect,” she says. The team recently put the finishing touches on the project and presented their robot as part of a demonstration on April 14.

In addition to her degree in engineering, Al Ghadban’s interests in public and mental health spurred her to take courses and eventually pursue a double major in psychology, a field that she sees as complementary to engineering. “In psychology, we focus a lot on research and study design, research bias, and these things are similar in engineering and psychology,” she says. “Overall, I think they gave me different perspectives in terms of problem solving, and it’s nice to have that interdisciplinary lens.”

One place where Al Ghadban was able to use this interdisciplinary lens was while working as an research assistant in the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab with Michelle Johnson during her sophomore year. “The focus of the lab is to create robots for post-stroke rehabilitation, and the robotics part is very engineering-focused, but there is another part where people struggle doing the exercises,” she says. “Being able to engage with people and increasing their likelihood of doing that intervention, you rely on a lot from psychology, like interventions from positive psychology or research on how people stay engaged.”

Continue reading at Penn Today.

‘As More Women Enter Science, It’s Time to Redefine Mentorship’

 

Danielle Bassett, Ph.D.

Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in the departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, investigates how the shape of networks impact the phenomena that arises from them. Much of that research is focused on networks of neurons, and how the different ways they are wired together in different people can influence their mental traits, such as memory or executive function.

Bassett is also interested in networks of people, however, as the shapes of those networks can have a major impact on a society’s traits. Last year, she and her colleagues published a study that investigated the network of citations neuroscience researchers produced in the course of their work, demonstrating a systemic gender bias that left women underrepresented in the literature.

Recently, Bassett spoke with WIRED’s Grace Huckins about the big-picture changes that must take place within academia for it to become truly equitable.

When a group of researchers at NYU Abu Dhabi published a paper in Nature Communications last fall suggesting that young women scientists should seek out men as mentors, the backlash was swift and vociferous. Countless scientists, many of them women, registered their indignation on Twitter—some even penning open letters and their own preprints in response. The original paper had found that female junior scientists who authored papers with male senior scientists saw their papers cited at higher rates. But a number of critics contested the assertion that this result established a link between male mentors and career performance. Scientists routinely coauthor articles with people who are not their mentors, they argued, and citation rates are just one metric of achievement. In response to these criticisms, the authors eventually retracted their paper. (They declined to comment to WIRED.)

But the paper had already stirred up a broader discussion about gender and mentorship in academia. For Danielle Bassett, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, the methodological concerns that prompted the paper’s retraction were far from its worst sin. She herself has researched citation practices and found that, in neuroscience, papers with male senior authors are cited at a disproportionately high rate—primarily because other male scientists preferentially cite them. To suggest that young women should therefore try to author papers with men is, she believes, a grave error. “That was a problem in assigning blame,” she says. “The onus is on us to create a scientific culture that lets students choose a mentor that’s right for them.”

Continue reading Grace Huckins’s ‘As More Women Enter Science, It’s Time to Redefine Mentorship‘ at WIRED.

Originally posted in Penn Engineering Today.

Student Spotlight: Sonia Bansal

Sonia Bansal, Ph.D.

Next up in the Penn Bioengineering student spotlight series is Sonia Bansal. Sonia got her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University in 2014. She then came to Penn, where she recently got her Ph.D. in September of 2020 in Bioengineering under the advisement of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Professor of Bioengineering. Her dissertation is entitled “Functional and Structural Remodeling of the Meniscus with Growth and Injury” and focuses on the ways the knee meniscus changes while being actively loaded (growth) and under aberrant loading (injurious) conditions. She has presented her work internationally and has first authored four papers, with two more in preparation. She is passionate about K-12 STEM outreach and teaching at the collegiate level. She has been on the teaching team for six classes in the department, and is the first recipient of the Graduate Fellowship for Teaching Excellence from the Bioengineering department.

What drew you to the field of Bioengineering?
I first got interested in Bioengineering when I realized that it would let me merge my interests in biology and the human body with my desire to solve big questions by building and creating solutions. I applied to college knowing it was what I wanted to study.

What kind of research do you conduct, and what is the focus of your thesis?
My research is focused on the knee meniscus, specifically the impacts of its complex extracellular matrix and how that matrix changes during growth and after meniscal injury. My interests are largely translational, and in the future, I’d like to think about how we can use preclinical animal models to create effective therapeutics and drive clinical decision making in the orthopedic space.

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?
I studied Biomedical Engineering during my undergraduate education and worked in cartilage tissue engineering. These experiences helped guide me to my Ph.D. work here at Penn. The two pieces of advice I’d give my undergraduate self is to ask for help and that it’s important to get more than five hours of sleep a night.

What’s your favorite thing to do on Penn’s campus or in Philly?
My favorite thing to do on campus was to read papers/write lectures/work on grants at a local coffee shop. I used to go to HubBub when it still existed, Saxby’s, and United By Blue.

Have you done or learned anything new or interesting during quarantine?
I have embarked on a journey in culinary fermentation (variety of pickles and sourdough, of course), and recently started homebrewing!

Gardening in Costa Rica Yields Inspiration During Quarantine

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María Suarez in her garden.

When the coronavirus pandemic began in March, María Suarez, junior in bioengineering, left Penn’s campus and returned home to Costa Rica. What should have been the final weeks of club activities, social events and end-of-year celebrations shifted to months spent at home, far away from Philadelphia. But Suarez, like many others, wanted to do something productive with her time in quarantine. Drawing on her bucolic roots, she decided to start a garden.

“I was born and raised in a very rural area,” Suarez says. “There is a huge river in my backyard where I learned how to count by throwing pebbles in the river with my mother and sister. Nature is a big part of my life, and it’s really shaped my personality. As a child, I planted herbs, like basil, mint and oregano, with my parents. When you are close to the land like this, gardening was something that grew naturally out of our lifestyle.”

As the spring semester shifted into summer, Suarez returned to her love of planting and embarked on an ambitious project to grow a vegetable garden in her backyard. Unlike the smaller herb gardens she had grown as a child, this vegetable garden required deeper horticultural knowledge as well as intense work under the hot sun.

“To begin the garden, I had to clear the land I wanted to use and remove all the grass and stones from the soil,” Suarez shares. “It was the dry season in Costa Rica and the ground was very difficult to work with.”

After clearing the land, Suarez had to bring nutrients back into the soil of her garden plot. Luckily, her family has been maintaining a natural compost pile for many years.

“Basically, the compost pile is a hole in the ground where we put our natural food waste. There are worms and animals there that help us naturally decompose the waste and they produce a very nutrient rich soil.” Suarez explains. “The compost is a five-minute walk from my garden, and I had to take at least ten trips with a wheelbarrow to bring enough back. It was a great arm workout.”

Once the soil was placed and watered, Suarez was finally able to plant her seeds. After a few days, she saw celery and zucchini plants beginning to sprout. Throughout the summer, Suarez’s crops grew well, and she was able to harvest the vegetables and share them with her family.

“It was very fulfilling to see the products of my efforts,” Suarez says.

Read the full story on the Penn Engineering blog.

Avery Posey’s cancer research takes high risks for big rewards

by Melissa Moody

Avery Posey, PhD (Image: Penn Medicine Newsby Melissa Moody

Much of the world, including research at Penn Medicine, has focused its attention on how T cells–which play a central role in immune response—might shape the trajectory of COVID-19 infection, and how immunotherapy can shed light on treatment of the disease.

Already a leader in immunotherapy research and treatment, Penn Medicine pioneered the groundbreaking development of CAR T cell cancer therapy. Avery Posey, an assistant professor of systems pharmacology and translational therapeutics, trained as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Carl June, who pioneered CAR T cell immunotherapy to treat cancer. Now as a faculty member at Penn, Posey has maintained a focus on T cell therapeutics, mostly for the treatment of cancer.

“This research combines two of my biggest interests—the use of gene therapy to treat disease and the investigation of little known biology, such as the roles of glycans in cell behavior. The pursuit of new knowledge, the roads less traveled—those are my inspirations,” Posey says.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.

N.B.: Avery Posey and Carl June are members of the Department of Bioengineering Graduate Group. Learn more about BE’s Grad Group Faculty here.

‘For Neurodegeneration, a Different Way to Slice the Pie’

Danielle Bassett, Ph.D.

Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in the departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, has been called the “doyenne of network neuroscience.” The burgeoning field applies insights from the field of network science, which studies how the structure of networks relate to their performance, to the billions of neuronal connections that make up the brain.

Much of Basset’s research draws on mathematical and engineering principles to better understand how mental traits arise, but also applies them more broadly to other challenges in neuroscience.

In her latest paper, “Defining and predicting transdiagnostic categories of neurodegenerative disease,” published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, Bassett collaborated with the Perelman School of Medicine’s Virginia Man-Yee Lee and John Trojanowski to provide a new perspective on the misfolded proteins associated with those diseases.

The researchers used machine learning techniques to create a new classification system for neurodegenerative diseases, one which may redraw the boundaries between them and help explain clinical differences in patients who received the same diagnoses.

BioWorld’s Anette Breindl spoke with Bassett about the team’s findings.

Now, investigators have developed a new approach to classifying neurodegenerative disorders that used the overall patterns of protein aggregation, rather than specific proteins, to define six clusters of patients that crossed traditional diagnostic categories.

“We find that perhaps the way that clinicians have been diagnosing these disorders… is not necessarily the way these disorders work,” Danielle Bassett told BioWorld. “The way we’ve been trying to carve nature at joints is not the way that nature has joints. The joints are elsewhere.”

Continue reading Breindl’s article, “For neurodegeneration, a different way to slice the pie,” at BioWorld.

Originally posted on the Penn Engineering blog. Media contact Evan Lerner.

Why This Bioengineering Ph.D. Student Pursued Impact Investing

In a Q&A, Bioengineering doctoral candidate Ana P. Peredo explains how the idea of “regeneration” motivated her to join WIVA, Wharton Social Impact’s impact investing program.

Why would you — a bioengineering Ph.D. student — seek to join WIVA?

As a bioengineering Ph.D. student, Ana P. Peredo is currently working on the development of regenerative methods and drug-delivery approaches for musculoskeletal tissue

“As a high school student, I was motivated to study bioengineering because of its potential to generate impact through technical innovation. To me, bioengineering was a way to apply engineering principles to create medical technology in the hopes of devising solutions for global health concerns.

Though I have gained significant understanding of the current pressing healthcare needs, I felt that I was missing a key understanding of how investors think about social impact. To better understand how to apply my science background to the impact space, I joined WIVA. I also wanted to venture outside of healthcare and learn about other important social impact sectors such as education, energy, and environment, all of which WIVA explores in its deal-sourcing process.”

What have you learned through WIVA that you have not been exposed to before?

“I learned how to assess early-stage startups for their impact and return-on-investment potential, as well as how to rigorously analyze company financials and projections.

I also had the opportunity to meet leading social impact professionals through WIVA. I attended a Wharton Social Impact Initiative event with Vincent Stanley, the Director of Philosophy at Patagonia. From this discussion, I learned about how the word ‘sustainable’ continues to be misused by companies and how companies should try to ‘regenerate’ the resources they consume to be truly deemed sustainable.

This conversation brought to mind my research experience with regeneration — could I use my WIVA deal-sourcing techniques to find impactful startups that use this concept?”

Continue reading at Wharton Stories.